(EnviroNews California) — Bon Tempe Dam, Marin County, California — At the end of former President Trump’s only term in office, his administration worked to dismantle the Endangered Species Act (ESA/the Act) on several fronts. One of those rollbacks changed the rules and allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to account for economic impacts when making ESA listing decisions — something Congress expressly forbade in 1982. At the time of Trump’s rule-change, few knew the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) was destined to become the first victim, but that is exactly what happened: the bird was stripped of 3.4 million acres of critical habitat ranging from the Canadian border to central California. Now, eight lawmakers and Joe Biden’s Interior Department (DOI) have slammed the brakes on those rule changes to the dismay of the timber industry.
As part of EnviroNews’ continuing coverage on this iconic species, Executive Editor Emerson Urry sat down with Congressman Jared Huffman in an on-camera exclusive at Bon Tempe Dam in Marin County, California on March 26, 2020 to explore the matter further.
“Adding economic factors into the listing decision is maybe the most pernicious [ESA rollback] because you’ll just never get a listing,” said Huffman. “It really makes a mockery of the entire [ESA]. It’s supposed to be about science.”
On Jan. 13, 2021, that rule-change was used to strip protections for just under 3.5 million acres of owl habitat in Oregon, Washington and California in a move that infuriated conservationists and environmental organizations.
“[Excluding millions of acres of federal land] will be another nail in the coffin for the spotted owl,” said Noah Greenwald, Endangered Species Director at the Center for Biological Diversity (the Center), said in a press release at the time. “Instead of trying to prop up a declining timber industry, we should be doing more to restore forests to save our climate and avoid the extinction crisis.”
But on Feb 2, 2021, Huffman intervened and joined seven other western Democrats from both the House and Senate who signed and delivered a letter to DOI’s Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt asking the agency to reconsider its plan for the spotted owl – a plan that was rammed through in the waning days of the Trump Administration. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) signed the letter, alongside Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), and Jared Huffman (D-CA). Biden’s Interior Department, now under Secretary Deb Haaland, listened, and on March 1 stopped the Trump spotted owl plan, forced it back into the environmental review process.
And on June 4, the northern spotted owl caught another break when the Interior Department announced it was rescinding the economic considerations rule-change entirely – along with several other major slashes inflicted to the ESA under Trump. The agency said it would “reinstate prior language affirming that listing determinations are made ‘without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.’” With the Trump rule gone altogether, it only strengthens conservationists’ case that the spotted owl’s protected habitat should be left fully intact.
“The northern spotted owl is an indicator species for old-growth habitat that we haven’t protected very well over the years. There’s very little of it left,” Huffman continued.
In order to survive, the spotted owl requires old-growth forests, including multi-layered canopies, dead trees and snags. The USFWS recognizes the bird faces declining numbers due to lowered habitat quantity and quality, weather patterns, and competition from barred owls (Strix varia) – an invasive species in the West.
Recently, anticoagulant rodenticides, used by agricultural operations to poison mice and rats, dealt another blow to the species, as have climate-driven wildfires. On December 15, 2020, the USFWS released its findings stating the spotted owl deserved to be listed as endangered. However, the agency said it was precluded from doing so because there were “higher priorities.”
As of April 30, 2021, the fate of the 3.4 million acres of habitat was delayed until December 15. The USFWS will use the time to prepare a “revision or withdrawal” of the rule-change.
The delay faces a challenge from the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) — a timber lobbying group that has partnered with Lewis County in Washington State to free critical habitat for logging. The AFRC is waiting for the summary judgement of their lawsuit, which they filed after the Biden Administration’s original suspension of the rule. The AFRC uses another Trump Administration rule change defining the term “habitat” narrowly, excluding any area that is not currently occupied by a species, to claim the USFWS’ delay is “illegal” as the area in question “is not habitat.” Now that Biden’s DOI has stripped that Trump rule away as well, the footing may be crumbling under AFRC’s feet.
The transcript of Urry’s Interview with Huffman reads as follows:
Emerson Urry: Staying with that and some of the rule changes and executive orders and what not that we’ve been seeing since Biden came in, like you said, moving pretty fast. Let’s talk about a wildlife species — an iconic wildlife species — that the Biden Administration slammed the brakes on what Trump had done there, and I’m talking about the northern spotted owl. This is actually an issue in your district because that covers Del Norte Country correct?
Rep. Jared Huffman: Sure. Well look, there’s northern spotted owls right in this watershed behind me.
Urry: Is that right?
Huffman: Yeah, absolutely. So, throughout my district it’s an endemic native species.
Urry: Why is it so important to protect it — the northern spotted owl?
Huffman: Well, the northern spotted owl is an indicator species for old-growth habitat that we haven’t protected very well over the years. There’s very little of it left. So, between that and the marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus), you know, these are the canneries in the coal mine for a very important type of habitat.
Urry: And you guys signed a letter — “you guys” meaning you and some of your colleagues correct? Didn’t you guys send a letter over to the Interior Department, essentially asking them to slam the brakes on that Trump rollback?
Huffman: We did.
Urry: Which, by the way stripped the owl of 3.4 million acres of critical habitat from the Canadian border, all the way down here, almost every wilderness expanse you can think of. So, what was that letter about and how did that come together?
Huffman: Well, it was a letter taking issue with one of these last minute overreaches by David Bernhardt, our former Secretary of Interior, and attempting to take vast areas off the map of critical habitat, which is an essential part of how the ESA works. If you don’t have critical habitat destinations it’s just much, much harder to prevent species from blinking out.
Urry: Well, and one thing that we observed in that rollback on the northern spotted owl, was they had made a cut to the Endangered Species Act itself allowing economic considerations to be factored into the listing process, essentially, for the very first time. I mean, people were always trying to meddle with it, and I believe in 1982 Congress had to step in an expressly forbid that and leave it only to the best available science and trade policy. The Trump Administration got rid of that and from what we understand, the northern spotted owl was the first victim because the logging industry came in and said: Oh, hey, we have all these economic considerations. So, that seems to be a gaping hole in the Endangered Species Act — that, and the rollback they did that changed the definition of habitat. How ya’ gonna fix that?
Huffman: Well, I think they also prevented threatened species from enjoying the full protections proposed for threatened and endangered species. There is a number of rollbacks, but I agree with you that adding economic factors into the listing decision is maybe the most pernicious because you’ll just never get a listing. It’s always going to be inconvenient to someone to list a species and to do the things necessary to keep them from going extinct. But it really makes a mockery of the entire Endangered Species Act. It’s supposed to be about science.
VIEW MORE SEGMENTS FROM THIS ENVIRONEWS FEATURE INTERVIEW SERIES WITH REPRESENTATIVE JARED HUFFMAN
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FILM AND ARTICLE CREDITS
- Emerson Urry - Producer, Journalist, Transcript, Interviewer, Video Editor, Sound Editor, 3D Animator, Colorist
- Dakota Otero - Director of Photography, A Camera Operator, B Camera Operator, Assistant Producer
- Shad Engkilterra - Journalist, Author
- Ian Burbage - C Camera Operator, Assistant Director of Photography, Gaffer