NSO Critical Habitat: Myths and Facts

On January 13, 2021 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a rule designating more than 6.1 million acres of critical habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO).  Anti-forestry groups are making false claims about what the rule means for owls and our forests.  Learn the truth.

MYTH: This rule reduces protections for the Northern Spotted Owl.

FACT: The rule focuses critical habitat on lands that provide actual habitat for the species.  The 2012 critical habitat designation included millions of acres that are not even suitable habitat for the owl.

The new rule does not affect the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO), neither does it affect or undermine the Endangered Species Act or other federal laws and regulations relating to the protection and recovery of the species – including a requirement that federal land management agencies consult on individual projects that may affect the species.

MYTH: This rule is a midnight giveaway to the timber industry.

FACT:  The rule was required by a court approved settlement of litigation challenging the 2012 critical habitat rule issued by the Obama Administration filed nearly eight years ago by a coalition of industry, labor unions, and local governments.

The rule is responsive to a unanimous 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision finding the Endangered Species Act (ESA) does not authorize the government to designate lands as critical habitat unless it is in fact habitat for the species. The rule also recognizes that the federal government has a legal mandate- recently affirmed in federal court– to harvest timber from the BLM O&C lands under the principles of sustained yield forest management.

MYTH:  This rule will lead to the extirpation of the NSO. 

FACT: The NSO Recovery Plan[1] states that simply protecting habitat will not recover the spotted owl since the best available science indicates that competition from the barred owl poses a significant risk to the survival of the species.  The 2018 Northwest Forest Plan Science Synthesis[2] concluded that “It appears unlikely that spotted owls can persist without significant reductions in barred owl populations.” The Recovery Plan also identified catastrophic wildfire as a growing threat to the NSO.

MYTH: This rule allows timber companies to clearcut old growth forests on federal lands critical to the survival of the NSO. 

FACT:  Industrial-style clearcutting is not permitted on any federal land.  The NSO Recovery Plan restricts federal land managers from cutting any trees in forests (inside and outside of critical habitat) containing high quality NSO habitat, including old growth. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are also required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on any timber projects that may affect the NSO.

MYTH: Timber harvest is the biggest threat to the survival of the NSO.

FACT:  The NSO Recovery Plan states that competition from the invasive barred owl and habitat loss pose the greatest risk to the survival of the owl.  A 20-year monitoring report (1994-2013)[3] on the Northwest Forest Plan published in 2015 concluded that over 80% of owl habitat loss during the 20-year period was due to wildfire and disease, not timber harvest.

MYTH:  Prohibiting timber harvests by humans will save the spotted owl.

FACT:  A recent study[4] found that NSOs have drastically declined since the barred owl invasion in a landscape dominated by old-growth forests where timber harvest and active management has not occurred (Mt Rainer National Park).  The USFWS’s NSO recovery plan points to the need for active forest management, yet forest management restrictions from previous critical habitat designations made it difficult for federal land managers to implement forest thinning and other activities to help mitigate further losses of habitat from wildfire.

Despite overwhelming evidence about the paramount threat posed by the barred owl and commitments by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement a barred owl removal program, little has been done to reduce the growing barred owl population.

[1] https://www.fws.gov/wafwo/pdf/NSO%20Revised%20Recovery%20Plan%202011.pdf

[2] Spies, T.A.; Stine, P.A.; Gravenmier, R. [and others]. 2018. Synthesis of science to inform land management within the Northwest Forest Plan area. Portland, OR: US Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

[3] https://www.fs.fed.us/r6/reo/monitoring/downloads/nso/Nwfp20yrMonitoringReportSummaryNsoHabitat.pdf

[4] https://academic.oup.com/condor/article/121/3/duz031/5543734?login=true