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California Spotted Owl Listing under the Endangered Species Act

This page will be updated with new information concerning efforts to secure protection for the California Spotted Owl under the Endangered Species Act. Additional information, including natural history of the owl and its ecology, as well as information about Forest Service actions concerning the species, can be found on this page.

November 30, 2021

SFL and partner conservation groups reached an agreement today with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the agency to conduct a new Endangered Species Act review of California spotted owls by Feb. 25, 2023.

The agreement stems from the lawsuit filed by the groups in August 2020 (see below) that asserted the Trump administration’s decision to deny protection to the California spotted owl was unlawful and not supported by the Service’s own scientific assessment. The agency’s work confirmed dramatic population declines in four out of five study areas and found that the owls face increasing threats.

See press release here.

August 18, 2020

The SFL coalition with the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, represented by Earthjustice, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for refusing to protect California spotted owls under the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit asserts that the November 2019 decision to deny protection to California spotted owls was unlawful and not supported by the Service’s own scientific assessment, which confirmed dramatic population declines in 4 out of 5 study areas and found that the owls face increasing threats.

Read the press release here. More background information and history follows.

July 31, 2020

Today Sierra Pacific Industries, the largest industrial private land manager of forest lands in the state, filed an application for an Incidental Take Permit for Northern and California spotted owls with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In support of their request, they submitted a 50-year term Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) which would allow the company to be free from any legal consequences if spotted owls are killed as a result of their activities on 1.85 million acres of their property, for 50 years. SFL and partners submitted comments during the scoping period for this proposal in 2017. Comments on the final plan from the public will be accepted until August 31, 2020.

April 15, 2020

Today the SFL coalition with the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, represented by Earthjustice, filed a formal notice of "intent to sue" the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its failure to protect the endangered California spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act. In November 2019, the Trump administration’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) found that the spotted owl is declining and likely to be wiped out from large portions of its range from a combination of logging, large fires driven by climate change, and the invasive barred owl.

The agency's determination was based on a Species Status Assessment Report that found that the majority of California spotted owl populations were in decline, with only a tiny fraction thought to be stable. The assessment said the “most likely future scenario” included the species being extirpated from the entire southern and coastal California portions of its range. The assessment also predicted that threats to the spotted owl’s survival—including invasion of the barred owl, tree mortality, drought conditions, and salvage logging harmful to the owl’s habitat—will increase dramatically. Despite these findings, the FWS inexplicably concluded that protecting the owl wasn’t warranted.

Press release here.

Read the notice of intent to sue letter here.

Read FWS decision as published in the Federal Register, and background documents.

November 8, 2019

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with decisions about which species in the United States are in danger or are threatened with extinction, has concluded its 12-month finding for the status of California spotted owl. The agency declined outright to list the owl, despite the documented decline of this species and the known threats from logging and other factors. The Service found that threats to habitat for the owl were not of concern. We don’t agree with the Service’s conclusions and are working with Earthjustice and other partners to evaluate the listing determination and decide on next steps. 

Read our press release for the decision.

Link to Federal Register notices: California spotted owl

March 16, 2018

Read SFL coalition comments on the draft conservation strategy for the California spotted owl. You can also read SFL's comments embedded in the draft document here. Scroll through the document and you will be able to see SFL's Ben Solvesky's comments in the margins.

February 16, 2018

The U.S. Forest Service has released a Draft Conservation Strategy for the California spotted owl. The impetus for developing a conservation strategy is to provide the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with justification that listing the species is not warranted. It is therefore imperative that such a strategy ensure that all of the significant threats to the species are ameliorated, the species is well distributed, and that populations are stable or increasing. The agency has requested that comments on the draft strategy be received by  March 16, 2018. You can download the strategy and read supporting documents, including the US Fish and WIldlife Service Conservation Objectives Report, released in October, 2017, at this Forest Service website.

Sierra Forest Legacy will be preparing detailed comments on the strategy, which we believe is a significant departure from agency scientists' actual findings. We will keep this page updated with new information as we work through the documentation.

February 1, 2018

Read SFL's comments, in partnership with Defenders of Wildlife, to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in response to the invitation to submit information relative to the owl in the 12-month status review (see below).

December 7, 2017

Today the US Fish and Wildlife Service initiated the 12-month status review for the California spotted owl, to determine whether or not listing under the Endangered Species Act is necessary to protect the bird from extinction. The agency is supposed to issue this finding within 12 months of a positive 90-day finding that listing is warranted. This determination was made on September 18, 2015. This means that the 12-month finding, as required by regulations of the Endangered Species Act, is more than two years overdue, and is not expected to be finished until 2019.

October 5, 2017

The U.S. FIsh and Wildlife Service has released a Conservation Objectives Report for the California spotted owl, the only subspecies of spotted owl in the country that is not protected under the Endangered Species Act. This is in spite of the fact that the owl is at least as rare and threatened with extinction as were the Northern spotted owl and the Mexican spotted owl when they were first listed. Nor is the owl listed for protection under the California Endangered Species Act. Apparently, the hold that the largest timber tract owner in the state, Sierra Pacific Industries, has on decision makers in the politically charged climate in California is just too great to overcome with hard facts and science.

The conservation objectives identified include the following:

1. Reduce population declines
2. Manage habitat for spotted owl use and the long-term establishment of natural fire regimes
3. Develop and encourage voluntary conservation actions
4. Create a region-wide monitoring program and develop adaptive management plans
5. Prioritize and support research to address additional uncertainties

1. Large, high-severity fires—Retain and restore resilient forests throughout the range of California spotted owls
California Spotted Owl Conservation Objectives Report Questions and Answers
2. Forest management practices—Use forest management tools that are compatible with maintaining essential habitat elements for California spotted owls
3. Tree mortality—Monitor the effects of tree mortality on California spotted owls
4. Barred owls—Establish and implement a monitoring and management study and/or plan for barred owls
5. Contaminants—Identify rodenticide exposure rates in California spotted owls
6. Climate—Align habitat planning and protection with areas likely to support high canopy cover and large trees under future climate scenarios

The report, which utilized the best available current science, has no legally binding power to restrict activities conducted on private or public lands.

September 22, 2017

On August 23, 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) on a proposed Endangered Species Act incidental take permit (ITP) application from Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) for the federally threatened Northern spotted owl and the California spotted owl. The activities to be covered would include timber harvest and timber management SPI conducts on its lands in the State of California. Read our coalition comments here.

August 30, 2017

Forest Service PSW researchers released General Technical Report 254, The California Spotted Owl: Current State of Knowledge. The report is aimed at responding to the USFWS and to inform the conservation strategy currently in preparation by the agency.

April 17, 2017

On March 17, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally requested information from members of the public with scientific information and expertise relative to the California spotted owl (CSO). The Service intends to collect and analyze the best scientific and commercial data available related to the CSO to assist in the development of a CSO Conservation Objectives Report. The report is is expected to be completed in 2017. The report will be peer reviewed, and will be used to inform specific conservation strategies and plans.

In response to the request, Sierra Forest Legacy and coalition partners provided a detailed summary of the science necessary to achieve conservation of the California spotted owl. Read the 42 page letter here.

July 2016

The Forest Service research branch in California, PSW, released the California spotted owl assessment, the most current scientific review of the status of the owl. The results are soon to be published in the General Technical Report format, after the draft has been edited, but you can download the long awaited draft report here. Read more about the Forest Service response to the document, here.

Citation: Gutiérrez, R.J.; Manley, Patricia N.; Stine, Peter A., tech. eds. [In press]. The California spotted owl: current state of knowledge. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.

September 18, 2015

USFS issues 90-day Finding on Petitions to List the California Spotted Owl

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a positive 90-day finding on a petition submitted by Wild Nature Institute and the John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute to list the California spotted owl (submitted in December of 2014). A positive 90-day finding indicates that the USFWS believes that substantial scientific or commercial information was provided by the petitioner and that the petitioned action may be warranted. The positive 90-day finding recognized SFL’s petition as well, and will incorporate the information we presented in the 12-month status review. With the issuance of the positive 90-day finding the USFWS opened a 60-day comment period requesting additional scientific and commercial data relevant to the status of the species. According to section 4 of the ESA, within 12 months of receiving a petition with a positive 90-day finding the USFWS is to complete a status review and determine if the petitioned action is warranted. However, this timeline is rarely met by the agency and it is unclear at this time when the USFWS will schedule the completion of the 12-month status review.

Download the notice in the Federal Register here.

August 19, 2015

Sierra Forest Legacy and Defenders of Wildlife File Listing Petition to Protect the California Spotted Owl under Federal Endangered Species Act

Sierra Forest Legacy and Defenders of Wildlife filed a petition on August 19, 2015 with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service requesting protection of the imperiled California spotted owl under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Spotted owls have a close association with important features of old growth forests and strong scientific evidence supports protection due to population declines. Threats to the species include: Forest Service logging, uncharacteristically large and destructive wildfires, large-scale clear-cut logging on private land and the arrival of a non-native invasive competitor, the larger and more aggressive barred owl.

It is essential that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list this imperiled raptor now due to multiple, intensifying threats and the perpetual failure of the U.S. Forest Service to heed warnings from scientists and environmental groups over the past 20 years.  One of the most ecologically damaging decisions in Forest Service land management history happened in 2004 when the Bush Administration gutted the earlier Clinton-era 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework.  The 2001 Framework expanded the use of low and moderate intensity fire as a management tool and increased protections for large diameter trees, both of which are essential to maintain spotted owl persistence and viability. 

More than any other factor, historical and current logging practices and aggressive fire suppression have altered national forests and private lands in ways that have damaged ecosystems and made them increasingly vulnerable to climate change and uncharacteristically large and intense wildfires. California spotted owls have been monitored by wildlife scientists for more than 20 years on three national forests in the Sierra Nevada and all evidence affirms significant population declines. Meanwhile on National Park Service lands, where logging is prohibited and fire is used as a tool to manage fuels, the owl population is stable to increasing.  Forest Service managers must heed the warnings from more than 20 years of research and use the best available science to guide needed changes in forest management or they make a mockery of land management planning. 

The petition will go through a 90-day review process by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during which time the Service will review the information presented and determine the merit of the petition’s claims that listing is needed. If the 90-day review yields a positive 90-day finding, the Service will initiate a more detailed 12-month status review, seek additional information from scientists and the public, and make a determination to propose listing or not.

The Forest Service took historic steps in 1993 to protect this rare species by ending clear-cut logging and the logging of large old growth trees; and under the Clinton Administration, the Forest Service developed the highly regarded 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework with its science-based management and habitat protection measures. But since 2001, the agency has implemented a series of back-tracking measures and political decisions that have ignored the best available scientific information and have contributed to the decline of California spotted owl.

Summary of Significant Threats to the California Spotted Owl

A 160-year history of selective removal of the largest, ecologically critical and fire resilient old growth trees in the Sierra Nevada

Spotted owls depend on these older trees for nest sites and dense forest cover for protection from predators and the cooler micro-climates this type of forest provides. 

The legacy of past “high-grading” of the largest trees since the 1850’s (pictured above) coupled with the era of clear-cutting old-growth has created a lasting ecological tragedy that will take hundreds of years to repair. While this devastating outcome is often word-smithed into more benign sounding terms such as “impacts from past management,” current management under the controversial Bush Administration’s 2004 Sierra Nevada Framework clearly suggests that the Forest Service actions today continue to drive the California spotted owl closer to extinction. (See the table below and Temple et. al. 2014).

Habitat Disturbance

The table below compares impacts to owl territories from private land and public land logging and fire since 2006. Disturbance here includes impacts from significant reduction in over-story canopy cover from intensive thinning on Forest Service lands, clear-cutting on private timberlands, and uncharacteristic high severity fire resulting from a century of fire suppression.

Table 1.  Cumulative area (acres) of disturbance within spotted owl territories (n = 2,002; 0.7 mile radius from an activity center) in the Sierra Nevada bioregion.  Disturbances evaluated include Timber Harvest Plans (THP) approved and/or completed from 2006 to 2013, U.S. Forest Service activities completed since 2006 that are likely to reduce canopy cover, and the amount of high severity fire.

Clear-cutting of large patches of old-growth forests on private lands continues today, creating fragmented landscapes lacking habitat for spotted owls.

The photos taken by Google Earth shown below are of industrial timberlands in the northern and central Sierra Nevada. As demonstrated by these recent Google Earth images, industrial logging practices have fragmented and degraded high quality spotted owl habitat through the central and northern Sierra Bioregion over the past several decades. These practices permanently convert green forestlands into tree farms that are managed on short rotations (turnover period before being logged again) and never develop old age forest characteristics owls and other old forest species need to survive. While industrial owners claim spotted owls use their lands, there is no evidence of long-term persistence in this degraded habitat. This ownership pattern limits wildlife connectivity for a suite of animals, isolating owl sub-populations and limiting options for critically needed population expansion.

Image below: Industrial timberlands west of Lassen National Park and Lassen National Forest south of Highway 44 and Viola, CA (Google Earth) 

Image below: El Dorado County industrial timberlands north of Highway 50 adjacent to Stumpy Meadows Reservoir and south of the Rubicon River. This is the site of the 2014 King Fire. (Google Earth)

Image below: Calaveras County industrial timberlands north and south of Highway 4 (Google Earth)

Loss of important nesting and roosting habitat due to a century of fire suppression and the failure to allow fire to beneficially shape the landscape

While fire suppression may be the management tool of choice directly adjacent to forest communities, paradoxically, intensive efforts of wildland fire suppression focused on eliminating large, damaging wildfires has ensured the inevitable occurrence of these fire (See Calkin et al. 2015).

Image below: Fire retardant dropped by air tanker, Lowell Fire, July 2015

Prescribed fire and use of natural ignitions for multiple resource benefits are critical tools for reduction of forest fuels across the larger Sierra Nevada landscape.  The Sierra Nevada mixed conifer and pine/oak forests were resilient for 10,000 years due to frequent low and mixed severity fire. Fire frequencies in the range of 8-12 years were common in pre-European settlement in California.

In the 97,000 acre King Fire (2014) in El Dorado County, much of that landscape had not seen fire in over a century leading to increased fuels build-up and significant high severity effects. This landscape, being similar to the larger 257,000 acre Rim Fire (2013), is a series of steep canyons that present limited options for mechanical fuels treatments. Getting major increases in fire use integrated into national forest management is critical to restore resilience, protect communities and enhance wildlife and watershed health.

Image below: Prescribed fire

Policy and Management History
CASPO Technical Report (1992) and Interim Guidelines (1993)

Forest Service managers in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s noted the plight of the Northern spotted owl in Oregon and Washington and took steps to protect the California spotted owl in the Sierra Nevada. This effort resulted in the 1992 Forest Service research publication The California Spotted Owl: A Technical Assessment of Its Current Status (PSW-GTR-133; CASPO Technical Assessment). The recommendations included halting the logging of large trees more than 30 inches in diameter, ending the practice of clear-cutting green trees which limited drastic changes in canopy cover, and increasing protection of standing dead trees and large logs as important ecological attributes for owls and a full range of old forest species. The document also promoted significant increases in the use of fire to restore forest resilience. The Forest Service took this guidance from their research branch and implemented changes to forest plans that lasted for more than a decade.

New science in 1996 Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project report led to the Clinton-Era 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework.

In 1996 the Center for Wildland Resources, led by Dr. Don Erman at the University of California, published the extensive Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP) Report documenting the impacts of excessive resource extraction, failing watershed health and the need for fire as a natural ecosystem process to maintain forest resilience. The SNEP Report resulted in a 1998 proposal by the Forest Service to amend all eleven forest plans in the Sierra Nevada based on new scientific information in the SNEP Report, new spotted owl research and various watershed studies that called out the need for improved ecosystem management. In early 2001 the Forest Service published the 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework Plan Amendment which incorporated much of this new scientific information. The 2001 Framework won two national planning awards and high praises from Forest Service and USDA leadership. The new plan limited logging of trees greater than 20 inches in diameter except in areas directly adjacent to communities, increased protection measures for old growth forests, protected several rare and at-risk terrestrial wildlife and aquatic species, and recommended increased use of managed fire for resource benefit.

2004 SN Framework and SFL litigation to halt Bush Administration logging plan

With the change in the national elections in 2000, the industry-friendly Bush Administration proposed major changes to Clinton Administration policies that resulted in limited protection for old forest areas and at-risk wildlife such as the California spotted owl, and gutted protections for trees greater than 20 inches in diameter thus undermining habitat elements critical for spotted owl survival. Sierra Forest Legacy and several coalition partners filed suit in 2005 and engaged in an extended legal battle that ended in a settlement agreement in October 2014. The Framework settlement agreement proposes specific elements that attempt to repair the damage resulting from Bush-era logging and re-establish a California spotted owl conservation strategy and increased use of managed fire in the Sierra Nevada. While this settlement process is still a work-in-progress it is tied to scientific recommendations made by scientists as far back as the 1992 CASPO Technical Assessment both in terms of increased habitat protection for owls, increased protection for large trees and the need for landscape fire use.


Recent important scientific research relative to the California spotted owl

Barrowclough, G.F., R.J. Gutiérrez, J.G. Groth, J.E. Lai, and D.F. Rock.  2011.  The hybrid zone between northern and California spotted owls in the Cascade-Sierran suture zone.  The Condor 113:581-589. (234 KB PDF)

Calkin, D.E., M.P. Thompson, and M.A. Finney. 2015. Negative consequences of positive feedbacks in US wildfire management. Forest Ecosystems (2015) 2:9. DOI 10.1186/s40663-015-0033-8. (Relevance: entrenched agency reliance on fire suppression is exacerbating loss of fire resiliency)

Conner, M. M., J. J. Keane, C. V. Gallagher, G. J. Jehle, T. E. Munton, P. A. Shaklee, and R. A. Gerrard.  2013.  Realized population change for long-term monitoring:  California spotted owl case study.  Journal of Wildlife Management 77: 1449-1458. (Relevance: Population declines on Forest Service lands in Northern and Southern Sierra Nevada).

Dolanc, C.R., H.D. Safford, J.H. Thorne, and S.Z. Dobrowski. 2014. Changing forest structure across the landscape of the Sierra Nevada, CA, since the 1930s. Ecosphere 5(8):101. (Relevance: 41-60% decline of large diameter trees (>24” diameter) across nearly all elevational bands in the Sierra Nevada from 1930 to early 2000s).

Kramer, A., Jones, G.M., Whitmore, S.A., Keane, J.J., Atuo, F.A., Dotters, B.P., Sawyer, S.C., Stock, S.L., Gutiérrez, R.J., M.J. Peery. 2021. California spotted owl habitat selection in a fire-managed landscape suggests conservation benefit of restoring historical fire regimes. For. Ecol. Mgmt. 479 1 Jan 2021. (Relevance: California spotted owls neither selected nor avoided forests burned by low- and moderate-severity, or high-severity fires, yet avoided larger patches of severely-burned forest in three national parks).  

Lee, D.E., M.L. Bond, and R.B. Siegel.  2012.  Dynamics of breeding-season site occupancy of the California spotted owl in burned forests.  The Condor 114:792-802  (Relevance: spotted owls are resilient to high severity fire at the landscape scale).

Seamans, M. E., and R. J. Gutierrez.  2007.  Habitat selection in a changing environment:  the relationship between habitat alteration and spotted owl territory occupancy and breeding dispersal.  Condor 109:566-576. (Relevance: Impacts to high canopy cover forest habitat lead to owl dispersal).

Tempel, D.J., R.J. Gutierrez, S.A. Whitmore, M.J. Reetz, R.E. Stoelting, W.J. Berigan, M.E. Seamans, M.Z. Peery. 2014. Effects of forest management on California Spotted Owls: implications for reducing wildfire risk in fire-prone forests. Ecological Applications 24:2089–2106. (Relevance: 50% population decline in Central Sierra Nevada).

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