WASHINGTON — The Interior Department said it will eliminate from federal protection more than 3 million acres in California, Oregon and Washington vital to the northern spotted owl, a species considered endangered under federal law.
In a draft rule published Wednesday as much of the nation was glued to impeachment proceedings, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of Interior, said it was excluding about 3.5 million acres of “critical habitat” established for the owls. Environmental groups warned that the move could spell the extinction of the species and immediately threatened lawsuits to block the action.
The excluded habitat is more than 16 times larger than the 205,000 acres the administration proposed in August 2020.
“These commonsense revisions ensure we are continuing to recover the northern spotted owl while being a good neighbor to rural communities within the critical habitat,” said USFWS Director Aurelia Skipwith.
About 42 percent of the species’ critical habitat will be excluded under the rule, according to the Western Environmental Law Center. The decision ignores research from federal scientists, placing the northern spotted owl on the precipice of extinction, according to Susan Jane Brown, an attorney at the center.
Included in a flurry of deregulatory steps the Trump administration has taken before it gives up power, the move runs counter to advice from federal biologists who warned last year that lost habitat is driving the decline of the raptors.
The rule could be subject to the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to strike down regulations finalized in the waning months of an administration. Experts place the cutoff point for adoption of such rules in mid-May, before which they would likely be outside the scope of that law.
Democrats are expected to use their Senate control to strike down many Trump-era regulatory changes. Simple majorities are required for the CRA, and if Democrats are unable to get any GOP support, they would be able to break 50-50 deadlocks with the vote of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
“Habitat loss was the primary factor leading to the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species, and it continues to be a stressor on the subspecies due to the lag effects of past habitat loss, continued timber harvest, wildfire, and a minor amount from insect and forest disease outbreaks,” the service said in an assessment of the birds dated Dec. 15.
In that assessment, the service said federal protection under the Endangered Species Act should be ratcheted up, not down, for the birds.