“This rule rights a wrong imposed on rural communities and businesses and gives us a chance to restore balance to federal forest management and species conservation in the Pacific Northwest,” Joseph said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed in a settlement with the timber industry to reevaluate the spotted owls’ protected territory following a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a different federally protected species.
The Trump administration has moved to roll back protections for waterways and wetlands, narrow protections for wildlife facing extinction and open more public land to oil and gas drilling.
But for decades, the federal government has been trying to save the northern spotted owl, a native bird that sparked an intense battle over logging across Washington, Oregon and California.
The dark-eyed owl prefers to nest in old-growth forests and received federal protections in 1990, a listing that dramatically redrew the economic landscape for the Pacific Northwest timber industry and launched a decadeslong battle between environmentalists and loggers. Old-growth Douglas firs, many 100 to 200 years old, that are preferred by the owl are also of great value to loggers.
After the owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, earning it a Time magazine cover, U.S. officials halted logging on millions of acres of old-growth forests on federal lands to protect the bird's habitat. But the population kept declining, and it faces another threat: competition from the barred owl.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has since said the northern spotted owl warrants being moved up to the more robust “endangered” status because of continued population declines. But the agency refused to do so last year, saying other species took higher priority.
That decision is facing a legal challenge led by the Center for Biological Diversity.
This story was first published on Jan. 13, 2021. It was updated on Jan. 14, 2021, to correct the amount of owl habitat devastated by Oregon wildfires last fall. About 560 square miles (1,450 square kilometers) of potential owl habitat burned, not 300 acres, and 300 square miles (777 square kilometers) is no longer considered viable for the birds.