Santa Fe, NM – A Federal District Court Judge in Arizona ruled on September 11 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service have shirked their responsibilities to ensure that Forest Service management activities are making progress towards recovery of the Mexican spotted owl, a species protected under the Endangered Species Act. WildEarth Guardians filed the case in March 12, 2013 over the agencies’ failure to ensure the recovery of the owl by collecting basic information, for more than 20 years, about the status of owl populations across the Southwest.
The ruling halts all “timber management actions” on six national forests in New Mexico and Arizona including all the national forests in New Mexico and the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. None of the 11 national forests in the two-state Southwestern Region have adequately monitored owl populations. The lawsuit originally targeted all 11 national forests in New Mexico and Arizona. However the five national forests in Arizona not subject to the injunction on logging completed new forest plans with new Endangered Species Act (ESA) consultations since the original filing of this lawsuit which led the judge to find that the lawsuit was moot on those forests.
“This decision is about agency accountability, to the public and to the recovery of the Mexican Spotted Owl,” explained John Horning, Executive Director of WildEarth Guardians. “With this decision, the agencies will finally be held accountable for ensuring that all forest management practices help, not hinder, owl recovery.”
As the decision explains, the Forest Service was required to implement a population monitoring protocol for Mexican Spotted Owl since at least 1996. It was expected that, within 10-15 years, management activities such as logging and prescribed burning that the agencies claimed would improve owl habitat, supported by monitoring that would show the species recovery, would enable its de-listing from the Endangered Species Act. Yet, as the decision states, “Over twenty years later, delisting has not occurred, and information about the current [Mexican spotted owl] population is still minimal.”
“The judge’s recent decision constitutes the clearest possible rebuke to this foot-dragging, and recognizes that the Forest Service’s failure to monitor Mexican spotted owl populations has enabled the agency to avoid accountability for its failed conservation efforts,” stated Horning. “Thankfully for these national forests and for the Mexican spotted owl, those days have now finally come to an end.”
The decision requires the agencies to initiate consultation pursuant to the ESA “addressing occupation monitoring of the MSO for recovery.” Because timber harvesting and other related activities may cause irreparable harm to the owl, the court has enjoined timber management actions, including timber harvesting, until consultation is complete. This is necessary, the Court recognized, because “It has been demonstrated over the past 20 years that the status quo will not lead to recovery of the listed species.”
“While the Forest Service finally steps up to its conservation obligations and assesses how its management programs affect the recovery of the Mexican spotted owl as a species, certain timber projects will be paused in light of the judge’s decision,” explained Steve Sugarman, the attorney representing WildEarth Guardians. “WildEarth Guardians has already opened up a dialogue with the Forest Service to assure that this pause will be orderly, and that it will not unnecessarily impede the implementation of projects that are truly necessary for the protection of life and property.”