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Critical habitat for Northern Spotted Owls Slashed

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This news and analysis are provided by the Ornithological Council, a consortium supported by 10 ornithological societies. Join or renew your membership in your ornithological society if you value the services these societies provide to you, including OrnithologyExchange and the Ornithological Council.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that it is reducing the critical habitat designated for the Northern Spotted Owls by nearly 3.5 million acres.

Just last month, the agency determined that up-listing the owl, from threatened to endangered, under the Endangered Species Act was warranted - but that it was precluded by higher priority actions. 

The critical habitat proposal was first released in August, but the final rule bears little resemblance to the initial proposal, which would have reduced designated critical habitat by only 200,000 acres. The final rule would reduce the critical habitat designated for Northern Spotted Owl in California, Oregon, and Washington from about 9.6 million acres to about 6.1 million acres.

Under section 4(b)(2) of the ESA, the Interior Secretary may exclude an area from critical habitat if he or she determines that the benefits of such exclusion outweigh the benefits of including that area as critical habitat. However, the Secretary may not make such an exclusion if he or she determines, based on the best scientific data available, that the failure to designate such area as critical habitat will result in the extinction of the species. As stated in the Federal Register, in this case, the Secretary determined that the benefits of exclusion of particular areas of critical habitat outweigh the benefits of designation of particular areas of critical habitat based on economic, national security, and other relevant impacts. 

The proposal goes into effect on March 16. The incoming Biden administration could chose to set aside the rule and develop a new one in its place. 

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