Like its cousins the Mexican and northern spotted owls, the California spotted owl is a bellwether of old-growth forests. This owl's classic four-note call was once commonly heard throughout the big trees of the Sierra Nevada and Southern California ranges, but logging, sprawl, and invasion by the barred owl — an aggressive relative increasingly muscling spotted owls out of the woods from British Columbia to the Sierra — are silencing it.

In the last half of the Clinton administration, the Forest Service initiated planning for the eight national forests of the Sierra Nevada under the so-called “Sierra Nevada Framework,” just as the Center and Sierra Forest Legacy filed petitions to protect the California spotted owl and Pacific fisher under the Endangered Species Act. The administration subsequently issued the Framework, which set forth protections for the owl and fisher and followed some of the guidelines recommended in the petitions. But claiming the Framework offered safeguards enough, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied protection for the owl under the Endangered Species Act. Then the Bush administration handily gutted the Framework's protections for both the fisher and the owl.

In 2004, the Center filed another petition to have the owl protected and in 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service again denied protection, claiming owl populations in the Sierra Nevada might be stable. In 2014, the Wild Nature Institute and John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute again petitioned to have owls protected. In September 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued an initial positive decision on the petition to protect the owls, but with the agency more than a year late in issuing its required “12-month finding” on whether the species warrants listing, in March 2016 the Center sued. Less than five months later we reached a settlement with the Service requiring a decision by 2019. 

The Center has also advocated to save the California spotted owl's habitat. We have helped stop a number of timber sales in the Sierra Nevada and have advocated for strong owl protection in plans developed for the Giant Sequoia National Monument and four Southern California national forests. The Center has also joined Sierra Forest Legacy in challenging the weakened version of the Sierra Nevada Framework. In 2014 the Center filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over its continued failure to protect post-fire wildlife habitat from outdated and destructive logging practices. The areas at issue provide crucial habitat for wildlife for the Californa spotted owl and other species.