PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The federal government has revised the critical habitat of the northern spotted owl in Oregon, Washington and California from 9.5 million acres to 6.1 million, a change of about 3.4 million acres.

Tuesday’s announcement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) drew the ire of conservation groups following a decision last month by the agency that uplisting the species from threatened to endangered — a more severe classification under the Endangered Species Act that signifies it is in peril of extinction — was “warranted but precluded,” indicating the agency won’t take any action on that due to higher priority items taking precedent.

“It’s a horrible new rule,” Portland Audubon Conservation Director Bob Sallinger told KOIN 6 News. “The fact that they would make that announcement last month and then roll back protections for it this month is just appalling.”

The action, which does not take effect until 60 days from Tuesday, comes after USFWS originally proposed back in August to reduce the designated critical habitat for the owl by just 204,653 acres. The critical habitat reduction was part of a settlement agreement with labor representatives, the timber industry and several counties that brought a legal challenge against the 2012 critical habitat designation of 9.5 million acres for the spotted owl.

A northern spotted owl on public land in Benton County, Oregon. April 17, 2009 (courtesy Scott Carpenter).

“The discussion again was reduction by about 200,000 acres. And there were huge objections to that, given the status of the spotted owl. Why are we reducing protections rather than increasing?” Sallinger said. “We’ve gone from bad to horrific.”

According to a report by the Statesman Journal, northern spotted owls occupied 14,000 territories across the Pacific Northwest in 1993, three years after they were listed as threatened under the ESA. Today, it’s estimated they occupy just 3,000 territories or about one male or breading pair inhabiting each territory.

Sallinger said he hopes that because the recent decisions regarding the spotted owl were made under the administration of outgoing President Donald Trump, the incoming administration under President-elect Joe Biden could work to reverse some of those decisions.

“I think the first step really is for the new administration, take a close look at this, it’s urgent and see what can be done to remedy this new rule. And if that is not successful than I think you’ll see litigation,” from Portland Audubon and other groups, Sallinger said.

According to USFWF’s final rule, under the ESA, the Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, has the authority to exclude areas unless that exclusion will result in the extinction of the species.

Sallinger disagrees that this latest critical habitat revision for the spotted owl won’t result in its extinction.

“This species is disappearing before our eyes. It is gone from British Columbia. It is mostly gone from Washington. It is gone from portions of Oregon. It is blinking out before our eyes,” Sallinger said. “This is just simply reckless.”

Conservation Group Center for Biological Diversity also lambasted the decision.

“Even in its final week, the Trump administration is continuing its cruel, reckless attacks on wildlife at a breakneck pace,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the CBD. “This revision guts protected habitat for the northern spotted owl by more than a third. It’s Trump’s latest parting gift to the timber industry and another blow to a species that needs all the protections it can get to fully recover.”

A northern spotted owl (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

The northern spotted owl faces many threats. One example is the loss and fragmentation of the owl’s old growth habitat, which conservation groups like Portland Audubon and Center for Biological Diversity say is a result of decades of unsustainable logging. The northern spotted owl also faces competition from the invasive barred owl and the species is also threatened by wildfires.

According to U.S. Forest Service data, as reported in the Statesman Journal, the historic 2020 wildfires set ablaze 360,000 acres (more than 560 square miles) of suitable nesting and roosting northern spotted owl habitat in Oregon. Of that, 194,000 acres (more than 300 square miles) are no longer considered viable for the birds.

USFWS said in a press release the decision was “based on the best scientific and commercial data available.”

“The Trump Administration and the Service are committed to recovering all imperiled species, and the northern spotted owl is no exception. These commonsense revisions ensure we are continuing to recover the northern spotted owl while being a good neighbor to rural communities within the critical habitat,” said USFWS Director Aurelia Skipwith.

Some within the timber harvest industry and others are praising USFWS’s decision.

The excluded lands include all 2.1 million acres reinvested to the United States as Oregon and California Reinvested Lands, known as the O&C lands (despite the name, the lands are entirely located in western Oregon).

The Association of O&C Counties (AOCC) is a group that advocates for sustained yield management of those 18 western Oregon counties where O&C lands are located “to protect and support jobs and local economies, essential public services and healthy resilient forests,” according to its website.

 “The Association of O&C Counties strongly supports the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to exclude all O&C lands from the 9.5 million acres previously designated as ‘critical habitat’ for the northern spotted owl. This is a result AOCC has been seeking for a very long time, and we are pleased the agency agreed with us,” said Tim Freeman, a Commissioner of Douglas County and President of AOCC.  “After 80 years of sustained yield management, over half of the O&C timberlands remain late-successional forest.  Sustained yield management of these lands can continue to provide many forest values, including owl habitat, while simultaneously supporting the social and economic needs of the rural communities in Oregon. We are delighted to see rational and positive decision making by the federal government.  It has been a very long process, and there is still more to do. But this is a major step in the right direction.”

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) also praised the decision by USFWS. The organization is a regional trade association representing over 50 forest product businesses and forest landowners whose purpose is to advocate for sustained yield timber harvests on public timberlands throughout multiple western states, including Oregon, “to enhance forest health and resistance to fire, insects, and disease,” according to its website.

A northern spotted owl family (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

“What’s good for our forests, is good for the owl and our communities,” AFRC President Travis Joseph said. “If we are going to have any chance at recovering the NSO, we must improve the health and resiliency of our federal forests through scienced-based active management. Walking away from millions of acres of at-risk forests that need treatment has been an unmitigated disaster for the owl and forested communities for nearly three decades. This rule modernizes our approach and helps focus the federal government’s actions on the greatest threat to our national forests: catastrophic wildfires.”

AFRC was a party to those who brought legal action after the USFWS’s designation of 9.5 million acres of mostly federal lands as northern spotted owl critical habitat across Washington, Oregon and Northern California. The coalition representing counties, business and labor, of which AFRC is a part, reached an agreement with the agency back in April.

The critical habitat revision is also related to a 2018 unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision finding that the ESA does not authorize the government to designate lands as critical habitat unless the species is actually living there. For areas where the species cannot currently survive, even if they had once lived there, it can no longer designate that as critical habitat.