Memo: Trump admin knew, didn’t care, slashing habitat would likely cause northern spotted owl extinction

Press release from Western Environmental Law Center.

On the same day as the Trump administration announced the elimination of 3.4 million acres of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s top owl expert formally objected to the decision in a document recently unearthed as part of ongoing litigation. The Jan. 15 memorandum, written by Oregon State Office Supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dr. Paul Henson, found that “it is reasonable to conclude that [the reduction in critical habitat] will result in the extinction of the [northern spotted owl].” The Henson memo references other documents, as yet unreleased, indicating this was not the first warning of the dire consequences of the proposed rule. On Dec. 9, 2020, Dr. Henson likewise warned, “Most scientists (myself included) would conclude that such an outcome will, therefore, result in the eventual extinction of the listed subspecies.”

“We now know what we suspected all along, which is that the Trump administration actively disregarded the best available science when making wildlife and land management decisions,” said Susan Jane Brown, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Seeing in writing that callous disregard for the continued existence of this iconic species is sobering, to say the least, and revolting at worst. This is a clear example, and unfortunately not the first, of the prior administration giving out gifts to political allies rather than following the law. Thankfully, experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stood up for the northern spotted owl, and WELC and our clients are in court to ensure that the best available science rules the day.”

“We suspected that political favors, not science, guided the last-minute rulemaking change by the Trump administration,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). “Now we know that it was made clear to the Trump administration that its planned cuts to northern spotted owl critical habitat would result in the owl’s extinction. They knew but didn’t care.”

The Henson memo was written in response to a separate memo, signed by then-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith, which outlined the legal and scientific justifications for the reduction in critical habitat. The Jan. 7, 2021 memorandum was reportedly not provided to Dr. Henson until the day before the formal rulemaking, making a more timely objection impossible.

This is not the first time that political appointees have personally inserted themselves into controversial decisions. In 2007, Julie MacDonald, then deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior, was found to have manipulated decisions and agency science to benefit the Bush administration’s political agenda. The Interior Department under Interior Secs. Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt have also been subject to a number of high-profile ethics scandals. Given this history, after the Jan. 15 critical habitat rule, eight Western lawmakers requested a formal investigation as to whether any government official improperly “inserted themselves into the scientific process in order to achieve preferred policy outcomes….”

The Biden administration has paused implementation of the Trump-era critical habitat rule until December, signaling its intent to formally reverse or revise the rule. Meanwhile, the timber industry has already filed suit against the delayed implementation and Congressional Republicans are lining up behind the timber industry, urging the immediate implementation of the Trump rule.

General background:

Timber harvesting in the Northwest has resulted in a widespread loss of spotted owl habitat across its range, which was a main reason for listing the species in 1990. Owls depend on habitat provided by the dense canopy of mature and old-growth forests; unfortunately, those forests are still a target for logging throughout the bird’s historic range. The northern spotted owl is already functionally extinct in its northernmost range, with only one recognized breeding pair left in British Columbia.

In response to a court order, in 1990 the Service listed the northern spotted owl as threatened, citing low and declining populations, limited and declining habitat, competition from barred owls, and other factors in the bird’s plight. Even after its listing, northern spotted owl populations have declined by 70%, and the rate of decline has increased.

In response to a petition filed by the Environmental Protection Information Center, in December 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that “uplisting” the owl from “threatened” to “endangered” was “warranted but precluded by higher priority actions.”

12 thoughts on “Memo: Trump admin knew, didn’t care, slashing habitat would likely cause northern spotted owl extinction”

  1. My oh my, I’m astonished the Trump admin would ignore science! Or cut deals with their pals in various industries!
    Ignoring and politicizing science put our nation into a mess with Covid-19 and resulted in the tragic, needless deaths of too many of our fellow citizens, severe impacts to communities, the economy and many other aspects of our lives.
    Perhaps some people will learn from this that choices at the ballot box definitely have consequences for people and our environment.
    Great to see WELC and others pursuing this!

  2. Of course, Trump went with his policy of pushing ahead and, “let’s see what happens”. He thinks the Courts will always be on his side. The side that cuts corners and ignores existing rules, laws and policies. The side that is trying to re-write Forest Service history.

  3. Trump Administration = Political favors. Biden administration= Political favors. Only difference being which arena being impacted. Elections have consequences. That will never change apparently.

  4. I’m shocked! Politicals overrule career folks!

    “This is not the first time that political appointees have personally inserted themselves into controversial decisions.” I think that’s kind of the point of elections.. it’s OK when D’s do it but not R’s?

    I would have objected to quite a few decisions under both kinds of administrations had the opportunity arisen.

  5. It is never ok – by any administration – to violate the law. Although it is probably premature, I think the Trump administration will go down in history as the greatest and most beautiful at violating the law and disregarding the best available science.

    The spotted owl critical habitat rule isn’t a typical agency decision, where the decision is in the gray area of legality or even “good idea-ness.” It’s also not typical in terms of who made it: it was made by a person who has made a career (and just returned to it) of deriding the federal government, public lands belonging to all Americans, and duly enacted federal laws.

    I, for one, am glad that career biologists stood up against what was clearly a decision unsupported by the best available science (and I say that as someone who has also sued that same individual on occasion).

    • It doesn’t seem like it would be hard to defend the idea that it is really the owl’s preferred nesting habitats that are “endangered”. Indeed, it is the actual nests that would be lost if a typical overstory removal is ‘prescribed’ in those core habitats. (Yes, unoccupied nests should have protections, as well.)

    • Yes, well, the legality could be in the eye of the beholder. And what is found to be violating, depends on the pockets of someone to sue.
      I think that this is a great example, actually, of what is the “best available science.” I would say we don’t actually know the impacts of the decision because it depends on several unknowns.
      1. How much will actually be logged in a way destructive to “potential future owl habitat” and when (what will be going on in habitat elsewhere).
      2. How much will be burned, when, and at what intensity.
      3. Barred owl in future vs spotted.
      4. Impacts of climate change on any regrowth of habitat, or anything else.

      I’d argue that whether you are an owl biologist or not, these things remain unknown. So I think it’s a good example of “opinions of scientists”. It seems to me that the best information would actually be a combination of owl researchers/biologists, forest and wildlife techs and practitioners, even field workers and biologists from timber companies, and traditional ecological knowledge.

      • Legality is not “in the eye of the beholder” (at least in this country).

        What is important here is that an agency ignored the science. It should have said “the science says this is the likely effect, but I am deciding to do it any way, because …” Except, where the likely effect is extinction that would violate the law.

        You can deflect with all the Tucker Carlsonesque questions you want, but we “know” in a legal sense what the impacts of the decision are. We have to assume that this scientist’s “opinion” was based on “best scientific and commercial data available” (which is the requirement of ESA, and could have included any of the sources you mentioned) – and ESA does not require knowing all the unknowns.

          • Actually, “their science” says that NSO do NOT nest in younger stands, and therefore that habitat should not be designated as “critical.” Which isn’t really “their science” but really “the” science: owls don’t tend to nest in forest without nesting, roosting, and foraging characteristics. But that doesn’t mean that habitat doesn’t meet the definition of “critical habitat.”

            • What I mean by ‘their science’ is that Republicans think that the science is on their side, and they don’t want to hear anything more about it. The Republicans don’t want to further understand the owl’s needs. I’m confident that such plans would have lost in court.


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