Habitat for spotted owl could get smaller after ruling by appeals court
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A top federal appeals court has made a decision in a fight over federal protections for the northern spotted owl. Forests in California, Oregon and Washington state all have "critical habitats" protecting the owls.
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of lumber companies united as the American Forest Resource Council.
The "critical habitat" for the owls restricts where the companies can harvest wood. The companies want to challenge these restrictions. The court's decision means companies can legally challenge the owl’s designated “critical habitat.”
Decision Allows Lumber Companies To Go To Court
Here's where it got complicated: the companies had to go to court to see if it was legal to challenge the restrictions – in court.
In 2012, the federal government designated more than 9.5 million acres in the three states as essential for the owl’s survival.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote that the council had shown "a substantial probability" that the restrictions created by the critical habitat would mean less timber supply. He added that evidence showed council members would lose a harmful amount of money without that timber.
Kavanaugh made the decision with two other judges. They were Judge Thomas Griffith, appointed by George W. Bush, and by Sri Srinivasan, a judge appointed by former President Barack Obama.
Ruling Focused On Size Of Protected Owl Habitat
The ruling was not about whether the Fish and Wildlife Service’s critical habitat decision should or should not be allowed. Instead, the court’s opinion was about the huge amount of land affected by the designation.
“The designated critical habitat area is roughly twice the size of the state of New Jersey,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Lawson Fite is lawyer for the group of logging companies. He said last week the organization was appreciative of the appellate court's decision.
The case now moves back to district court, which is smaller. The district court makes a more specific ruling based on a trial. One possible outcome is the trial judge could order the Fish and Wildlife Service to draw new critical habitat maps. Officials might have to make the critical owl habitat smaller.
“We think a lot can be addressed by making sure the rule is scientifically supported,” Fite said.
D.C. Circuit Feeds Judges To Supreme Court
Sometimes called the nation’s second-highest court, the D.C. Circuit rules on a wide range of issues that involve federal government actions. Its judges could become Supreme Court justices in the future. Kavanaugh and Srinivasan have been mentioned as possible future Supreme Court nominees, depending on which party holds the White House.
Their 16-page decision issued last week could spotlight some of the public-lands challenges facing the Trump administration. The Trump administration inherited the Fish and Wildlife Service’s previous actions to protect the northern spotted owl. While the lawsuit says Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is defending the critical habitat, he comes from a state with a lot of skepticism toward the Endangered Species Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service identifies the northern spotted owl as a threatened species. This triggered the need to assign its critical habitat. The 2012 designation expanded the size of several earlier habitat assignments.
Owl Habitat Still Can't Be Destroyed
This land is not untouchable. Still, federal agencies like the Forest Service must make sure the habitat is not destroyed. They must work with the Fish and Wildlife Service on actions like issuing logging permits that allow companies to cut down trees.
Kavanaugh said “common sense” led to the conclusion that logging would decline on lands with the critical habitat designation. This would harm the companies because they would make less money.
He said the critical habitat designation would make huge areas of forest lands in the Pacific Northwest "substantially off-limits" for logging companies. This makes it legal for companies to challenge the reach of the critical habitat, the court decided.