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SOURCE: New York Times
DATE: January 13, 2021
SNIP: The Trump administration on Wednesday removed more than 3 million acres of Pacific Northwest land from the protected habitat of the northern spotted owl, 15 times the amount it had previously proposed opening to the timber industry.

The plan, issued by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, grew out of a legal settlement with a lumber association that had sued the government in 2013 over 9.5 million acres that the agency designated as essential to the survival of the northern spotted owl. The federal protections restricted much of the land from timber harvesting, which companies claimed would lead to calamitous economic losses.

But rather than trim about 200,000 acres of critical habitat in Oregon, as the agency initially proposed in August, the new plan will eliminate protections from 3.4 million acres across Washington, California and Oregon. What is left will mostly be land that is protected for reasons beyond the spotted owl.

The decision is the latest in a series of midnight regulations the Trump administration has pushed out in recent weeks that privilege industry over protecting the environment, including shielding industry from fines and prosecution if they kill migratory birds and reducing protections for animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act.

Conservation groups are almost certain to sue, and they said they would lean on House and Senate Democrats to use the Congressional Review Act — a procedural tool that allows lawmakers to nullify recently finalized regulations with a simple majority vote. But it could fall to the incoming Biden administration to do the slow work of unwinding the decision through the federal regulatory process.

Two people familiar with the spotted owl decision said the sharp increase in excluded land was done at the behest of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and other senior Trump administration appointees and was not backed up by the months of biological analysis previously conducted by the agency.

The final rule does not provide new scientific analysis. Instead it says “the Secretary has exercised his discretion” to exclude millions of more acres of land from critical habitat. He concluded, it said, “based upon the best scientific and commercial data available” that the northern spotted owl would not be threatened with extinction.

Conservationists said that assertion was unsupported by the agency’s own evidence. In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the northern spotted owl should actually be reclassified, as endangered rather than threatened, but the agency said it would not take steps to do so because it had “higher priority actions.”

Northern spotted owls live in forests with dense, multilayered canopies and other features that take 150 to 200 years to develop, the Fish and Wildlife Service has said. They typically mate for life and breed relatively slowly. Threatened by logging and land conversion, they came under protection in 1990 after a fierce political fight, but their numbers have continued to decline by an average of about 4 percent a year, according to the service.

Now the administration is taking away critical protection, scientists say.