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For Immediate Release, June 4, 2010

Contact:  Taylor McKinnon, (928) 310-6713

Court Upholds Mexican Spotted Owl Habitat Protections

SAN FRANCISCO— The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today shot down an appeal by the Arizona Cattle Growers Association challenging a 2008 district court ruling that upheld the validity of a 2004 rule designating 8,647,749 acres of critical for the threatened Mexican spotted owl.  In both cases the Center for Biological Diversity intervened on behalf of the government to defend the habitat protections.

“Today’s ruling is the latest in a long string of legal victories defending the owl and its habitat,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director with the Center for Biological Diversity, “This victory is good news because it upholds protections for the owl and the ecosystems that it depends on.”

The Arizona Cattle Growers Association’s appeal argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unlawfully designated areas containing no owls as “occupied” critical habitat and that the FWS calculated the economic impacts of the designation by applying an impermissible “baseline” approach. The court denied both claims, leaving the owl’s habitat protections in place.

The Mexican spotted owl was first listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, the result of a Center for Biological Diversity petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Center has sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service several times since then to establish protections necessary to facilitate Mexican spotted owl recovery. 

Old growth logging, recreational development, livestock grazing and other factors have contributed to the owls decline. The protections upheld today protect Mexican spotted owl habitat from those harmful activities and encourage restorative management and monitoring to ensure the owls survival and recovery.  

Marc Fink of the Center for Biological Diversity and Matt Kenna of the Western Environmental Law Center represented the Center in today’s victory.

Read today’s ruling here  
Read about the Mexican spotted owl’s natural history here

The spotted owl has long served as a flagship species for environmentalists across the nation, and the Mexican spotted owl is the Southwest’s most famous old-growth resident. Unfortunately, by the late 1980s — at the height of logging operations in the national forests — biologists estimated that only 2,000 of the birds remained in the world.

Ever since the owl was listed as threatened in 1993 — more than three years after the Center petitioned for the species — logging interests have constantly sought to undermine its protection. Two years after the Center won a suit designating critical habitat for the owl in 1995, a countersuit by timber proponents used a legal technicality to strip the bird of protected forest living space. The Center filed suit again in 1999, only to have the Service designate habitat in 2001 that left out the areas most important for the bird’s recovery. Finally, after another Center lawsuit and despite resistance from the Department of the Interior, the owl’s critical habitat was expanded to more than 8 million acres.  Center intervention in a livestock-industry challenge of that decision, the designation still stands today.

In addition to the long fight for critical habitat, the Center sued the Forest Service in 1995 for failing to consult on the effects of 11 regional forest plans on the owl. In 1996, the agency revised all 11 plans to incorporate the Mexican Spotted Owl Recovery Plan, but grandfathered in all ongoing logging and grazing, forcing us to sue once again. The resulting legal battles halted all logging in the Southwest for 16 months before forcing the Forest Service to implement the federal recovery plan.  

One of the largest owls in North America, with a wingspan of 45 inches, the Mexican spotted owl is a shy, chestnut-brown color with white and brown spots on its abdomen, back and head. Brown tails are marked with thin white bands. Owls need western North American old-growth forests of white pine, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine that create high, closed canopies, good for nesting. They nest in tree cavities, old bird-of-prey nests, caves, and potholes in cliff ledges.

Mexican spotted owls have the largest geographic distribution of all spotted owl subspecies. It extends from the four-corner states southward into west Texas and Mexico’s Sierra Madres. But nearly 90 percent of known owl territories exist on Forest Service lands in Arizona and New Mexico. Mexican spotted owls appear to be largely nonmigratory, with some movement to lower elevations for winter. Some owls migrate 20 to 50 kilometers between summer and winter ranges.

Logging, urban encroachment, mining, large-scale recreational developments threaten the owl. Its distribution is shaped by the distribution of forest land that has been protected from destruction and logging: even-aged timber harvest systems that replace old growth spell lost habitat and starvation. Domestic livestock grazing has devastated the rare and invaluable riparian forests of the Southwest. Finally, great horned owl predation, low reproductive success, and low juvenile survival rates threaten this owl’s future.

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