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. The species' numbers are still declining as it continues to lose habitat to logging, development, mining and wildfire.


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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 we 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. We 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. Thanks to Center intervention in a livestock-industry challenge of that decision, the designation still stands today.

In addition to our long fight for critical habitat, we 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. Unfortunately, in 2012, the Service released a final revised “recovery plan” for Mexican spotted owls that actually weakened protections for the bird laid out in its original 1995 recovery plan.

Photo © Robin Silver