Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places of western North America
and the Pacific through science, policy, education, and environmental law.

NEWS RELEASE: August 27, 2001
CONTACT: Brian Segee, Center for Biological Diversity (520) 623-5252 x308
Matt Kenna, Attorney (970) 385-694
More Information: Mexican spotted owl web site.


The Center for Biological Diversity, Navajo environmental group Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE), and Colorado based Center for Native Ecosystems today sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to overturn the agency's critical habitat designation for the Mexican spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The final designation, published on February 1, covers 4.6 million acres of federally owned land in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. The groups are suing because the final rule eliminated more than 9 million acres of proposed habitat—largely within Arizona and New Mexico National Forests, where 90% of known owls exist. The final rule also eliminated proposed habitat on Navajo Nation tribal lands.

"The ultimate survival and recovery of the Mexican spotted owl will require protection of the owl's habitat on Arizona and New Mexico National Forests," stated Brian Segee, forest watch coordinator with CBD. "Critical habitat provides permanent protection from shifting political winds and the Forest Service's consistent attempts to log, graze, and mine the owl's habitat," continued Segee.

"The Service has taken the remarkable position that the best habitat for the Mexican spotted owl should not be included in its critical habitat designation. That approach makes no sense, and certainly does not comply with the ESA," stated Matt Kenna, attorney for the groups.

The current suit is merely the latest chapter in the struggle to protect the spotted owl and its habitat under the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Biological Diversity has engaged in over 10 years of intensive research and litigation on behalf of the owl, first filing a petition to list the imperiled raptor under the Act in 1989. The current lawsuit is the third CBD has filed seeking lawful critical habitat designation. In a previous suit, decided in March 2000, a New Mexico federal judge praised CBD's "valiant and persistent" efforts to protect the species.

Attempting to justify its exclusion of Arizona and New Mexico National Forest lands, Fish and Wildlife Service argues that existing Forest Service management is an adequate substitute for critical habitat. On the contrary, the Forest Service routinely violates the spotted owl recovery plan and its own management guidelines, including guidelines requiring monitoring of livestock grazing in spotted owl habitat and prohibiting logging within spotted owl nest sites. Additionally, Southwestern Regional Forester Eleanor Towns in July invited public comments on a proposal to eliminate all spotted owl protections within ½ mile of wildland-urban interface areas. More than 130 territories—15% of those known to exist in the Southwest—would be sacrificed under this plan.

"Fish and Wildlife's claim that Forest Service management is an adequate substitute for critical habitat designation doesn't pass the laugh test," said Segee. "The Forest Service remains the spotted owl's biggest threat," concluded Segee.

The Mexican spotted owl was listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, primarily in response to heavy logging and resultant habitat degradation in Arizona and New Mexico. At the time of listing, the total estimated population was 2,160 owls. One of three spotted owl subspecies, its range extends from the southern Rocky Mountains in Colorado and the Colorado Plateau in Utah southward through Arizona and New Mexico into the Sierra Madres in Mexico. Today, the owl continues to be threatened by logging practices, wildland-urban interface treatments, domestic livestock grazing, mining operations, recreational developments, and fire.

The Center for Biological Diversity, formed in 1989, is a science-based environmental advocacy organization with more than 5,000 members which works on wildlife and habitat protection issues throughout Western North America. Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE) is an all-Navajo environmental organization based within the Navajo reservation, formed in 1991 and registered as a not-for-profit corporation with the Navajo Nation. Diné CARE's main mission is the empowerment of local and traditional people to defend their natural heritage. Center for Native Ecosystems, based in Boulder, Colorado, is an advocacy organization dedicated to conserving and recovering native and naturally functioning ecosystems in the Greater Southern Rockies and Plains.

The suit is being argued by Matt Kenna of Kenna and Hickcox in Durango and Neil Levine of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Denver.


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