The fight to keep the old-growth-dependent northern spotted owl from sliding into extinction just got harder.

In another nod to industry that slashes environmental protections, the outgoing Trump administration in January approved the opening of more than 3 million acres of the threatened owl’s northern California, Oregon and Washington habitat to logging.

At the same time, after a 12-month study the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified habitat loss as the primary reason the owls need more protections and announced that the owl warrants listing as endangered rather than threatened under the Endangered Species Act. 

The northern spotted owl has already lost 77 percent of its old-forest habitat in Washington, 68 percent in Oregon and about 50 percent in California. This is mostly from decades of logging that led to the spotted owl wars of the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in federally listing the owls as threatened and protecting about 7 million acres of habitat from logging.

The owl is also facing competition for food from the barred owl, an eastern species that has invaded the native owl’s historical range and is better adapted to shrinking habitat. 

“We need immediate protections for old forests across the Northwest, not more giveaways of our public lands that allow industry to gain at the expense of wiping a species out of existence,” says Peter Nelson, Defenders’ director of federal land conservation. “Forests are critical strongholds for imperiled wildlife and are essential to addressing the effects of climate change.”

Defenders is part of a coalition prepared to sue the federal government to reverse the outgoing Trump administration’s elimination of critical safeguards that protect national forests across the country.

In November, the U.S. Forest Service—under orders from President Trump to sell more publicly owned forests for lumber—finalized a National Environmental Protection Act Forest Service rule that would eliminate transparency, public input and science-based review from many of the agency’s most environmentally consequential decisions.

One of many controversial changes would allow the Forest Service to authorize the logging of more than 4 square miles of national forest land without public input or environmental review. This could have devastating implications for imperiled wildlife sensitive to logging operations like the federally threatened Mexican spotted owl, which has an average home range less than 4 square miles. Under the new Forest Service rules, entire core areas of habitat could be degraded without critical review.

“We must reverse the Trump administration’s disastrous approach to the environment,” says Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders’ president and CEO. “This final rule shuts out the public, ignores the science and delivers favors to special interests, regardless of the harm to forests, water, wildlife and the climate.”

In the past, robust public involvement in Forest Service project planning has led to the protection of thousands of acres of old-growth forests, backcountry areas, rare habitats and clean waters. Healthy national forests also provide recreational opportunities that draw visitors and bring valuable revenue to local communities.

“Our national forests are a national treasure and we will not sit idly by and witness their willful degradation,” adds Clark. “We ask that the Biden administration create a new way forward for our national forests and not let special interests put profits ahead of the environment and the public.”


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