A new habitat rule can help stop mega wildfires

 A new habitat rule can help stop mega wildfires
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Over the past 30 years, millions of acres of federal lands have been set aside as critical habitat for the northern spotted owl even as its population have steadily declined over this time. Fortunately, a new critical habitat rule adopted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January can lead to better outcomes for spotted owls, people and public lands if federal agencies focus on the real threats to this species and its habitat.

Few outside the Northwest U.S. can grasp the social trauma and pain caused by the designation of critical habitat for the spotted owl. The resulting decline in federal timber harvests and forest management shattered rural economies. Many communities still haven’t recovered, yet the species remains in decline. Why?

The shift toward federal forest “non-management” has resulted in a dangerous build-up of forest fuels that are contributing to today’s mega-fires. According to a 20-year monitoring report on the Northwest Forest Plan published in 2015, over 80 percent of spotted owl habitat loss during this period was due to wildfire and forest disease, not timber harvest. During Oregon’s disastrous 2020 wildfire season, over 560 square miles of suitable nesting and roosting spotted owl habitat burned up.

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The Fish and Wildlife Service’s own recovery plan points to the need for active forest management, yet management restrictions from previous critical habitat designations have made it difficult for federal land managers to implement forest thinning and other activities to reduce further habitat loss from wildfire. 

Even in areas with adequate levels of suitable habitat, the spotted owl is being extirpated by a non-native species called the barred owl. When the Fish and Wildlife Service considered uplisting the spotted owl to endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the agency concluded such a move was warranted based on “the imminent threat from the barred owl.” That is because barred owls displace spotted owls, disrupt their nesting and compete with them for food and are now recognized by the agency as the primary factor associated with spotted owl decline.

After conducting a study in Oregon, the Fish and Wildlife Service found removing barred owls appeared to stabilize spotted owl populations, compared to areas where barred owls were not removed. According to another report by the U.S. Geological Survey, results from a removal program suggested a 95 percent increase in spotted owl numbers where barred owls were removed, compared to areas where they were not removed. 

Ultimately, the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that if the barred owl continues to affect the spotted owl at the current or increasing levels into the future, it is anticipated the latter’s populations will continue to decline precipitously and possibly be extirpated in some areas. 

The 2021 spotted owl critical habitat rule is compatible with efforts to recover the species. It will complement the recovery plan by allowing public land managers to implement more forest health treatments, using forest management tools including targeted logging, thinning and prescribed fire to reduce fuels and wildfire risks. When combined with an aggressive effort to control competition with the barred owl, federal agencies could more effectively reverse the species’ downward trend.

Yet under pressure from anti-forestry groups, the Biden administration delayed implementation of the 2021 spotted owl critical habitat rule. The pending delay is based on political ideology — not science or law — and is preventing our federal land managers from planning and executing projects right now that can reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and improve forest health.  

Whether intentional or not, the Biden administration is creating uncertainty around managing our federal forests at exactly the wrong time as those of us in the West seek to reduce the risks of more devastating wildfires in the future.  

The new rule does not affect the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for the spotted owl, nor does it affect or undermine the Endangered Species Act or other federal laws and regulations relating to the protection and recovery of the species — including a requirement that federal land management agencies consult on individual projects that may affect the species.

For these reasons, the Biden administration should retain this new critical habitat rule. It aligns policy with federal law and modern forest science at a time when unprecedented and severe wildfires threaten both owls and people from Northern California to Washington State. By focusing on the true threats to the species, the federal government can protect spotted owl habitat while better managing its forests for our communities.

Nick Smith is the director of public affairs for the American Forest Resource Council, a regional trade association representing the forest products sector. He is also the executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-partisan grassroots coalition that advocates for active management of America’s federally-owned forests.