The third spotted owl subspecies will (finally) receive Endangered Species Act protection

California Spotted Owl

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that it will protect the California spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act. This decision comes 33 years after the Northern Spotted Owl was listed as Threatened (in June 1990) and 30 years after the Mexican Spotted Owl received the same designation (in March 1993).

Environmental groups first advocated for the California subspecies listing in April 2000, when 16 organizations petitioned the Clinton administration to list the bird as threatened or endangered. Since 2014, three lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the bird, the most recent in 2020, when environmental groups noted that: the most limited genetic variability of the three subspecies, making them more at risk of extinction.

Two populations of California spotted owl

In its listing announcement, FWS states that it recognizes two geographically and genetically distinct population segments (DPS). The Southern California Coast DPS will be listed as Endangered and the Sierra Nevada DPS will be listed as Threatened.

The Coastal-Southern California DPS is described as covering “the vicinity of the Coastal, Transverse, and Peninsular Mountain Ranges from Monterey County in the north to San Diego County in the south, and south of Tehachapi Pass in Kern County “.

The Sierra Nevada DPS covers “the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Sierra Nevada foothills from Shasta and Lassen counties in the north, but north of the Tehachapi Pass, Kern County in the south and east. east to Carson City, Douglas and Washoe counties in Nevada.”

A press release on the listing reads, “California spotted owls are distributed throughout California and Nevada. The owl needs forests that have multi-layered canopy cover, tall trees, and a mix of open, densely forested areas for nesting, foraging, and roosting. The greatest current threats to the California Spotted Owl include habitat loss from large-scale, high-intensity wildfires, competition and hybridization with non-native Barred Owls, tree mortality from drought and beetle infestations, and changes in temperature and precipitation associated with climate change. ”

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Rule 4(d): conservation tool or loophole?

The threatened designation of the Sierra Nevada owls includes a provision under Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act. According to the FWS, Rules 4(d) “provide for the conservation of a threatened species by adapting protections to those necessary to prevent further decline and facilitate recovery.” In this case, Rule 4(d) “exempts from the ESA prohibition on harvesting for forest fuel management activities that reduce the risk of large-scale, high-intensity forest fires.”

The FWS press release further explains, “As large-scale, high-severity wildfires are the greatest threat to the California spotted owl, the Service worked with Sierra Pacific Industries and the U.S. Forest Service to develop coordinated, multi-party fire risk reduction efforts that include the removal of brush and selected trees that fuel fires in owl habitat. Most of the land inhabited by California Spotted Owls is managed by the Forest Service and Sierra Pacific Industries. Implementing their fire hazard reduction plans could help improve California spotted owl habitat for years to come.

A statement from the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups, however, calls Rule 4(d) a “loophole” that “would exempt many logging operations from having to comply with the rules of the law.”

Despite their criticism of Rule 4(d), conservationists welcomed the decision to protect the owls.

“These much-needed protections for the California spotted owl are long overdue,” said Pam Flick, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “The best available scientific data demonstrates that most California Spotted Owl populations have been in decline for many years. These new protections under the Endangered Species Act will give this species a chance to recover.

“It’s taken far too long for California’s spotted owls to be nominated for Endangered Species Act protections, but I’m thrilled they can finally get these crucial safeguards,” said Justin Augustine. , senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “I urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to act quickly to bring these endearing birds back from the brink.”

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“Listing the California spotted owl gives us a much-needed conservation tool to protect this endangered species and its habitat,” said Susan Britting, executive director of Sierra Forest Legacy. “We seek to work with the Service and others to use these protections to reverse the decline of this magnificent species.”

FWS invites public comment on its California spotted owl listing proposal by April 24, 2023. The proposal and information on how to submit comments can be found at by searching under file number FWS-R8-ES -2022-0166.

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