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Twentieth Anniversary of ESA Listing for Mexican Spotted Owl Brings New Round of Litigation

WildEarth Guardians Sues Fish and Wildlife Service over its Failure to Reasonably Protect the threatened bird

Tucson, AZ – On the twentieth anniversary of the federal listing of the Mexican spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act, WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) alleging it has failed to ensure the species’ survival and recovery. Specifically, WildEarth Guardians alleges that the FWS’s recent Biological Opinions for 11 national forests in Arizona and New Mexico are groundless and deny the owl protections won two decades ago.  These Biological Opinions, which followed a previous round of litigation by Guardians against the U.S. Forest Service, are simply at odds with the best available.  The complaint asserts the FWS has failed to consider the impacts of widespread forest thinning and logging in southwestern national forests and has failed to hold the Forest Service to its commitment to track the bird’s numbers.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is giving forest managers a free pass,” Said Bryan Bird, Wild Places Program Director. “No one knows what is worse for the owl -- fire or large scale thinning and logging in its critical habitat.  The Forest Service has information that the owl actually reproduces unusually well in burned forests.  Nonetheless the Forest Service charges ahead in a haze of fire hysteria.”

The Mexican spotted owl was provided protection under the Endangered Species Act two decades ago on March 16 and lawsuits by WildEarth Guardians lead to robust protections for the bird in the mid nineties. One of the strongest requirements was for the Forest Service to monitor the population trends of owls and the effects of its forest management activities on those trends. However, WildEarth Guardians charges that the Forest Service failed to acquire this critical information and that the FWS turned a blind eye in recent Biological Opinions.

Meanwhile, even after two decades of protected status, circumstances for the Mexican spotted owl continue to deteriorate.  The best available evidence on population trends of owls shows that the species has suffered recent declines in its population – with some local populations appearing to have gone extinct since listing.  At the same time, the FWS endorses the Forest Service’s increasingly aggressive thinning and logging projects on national forest lands, at levels of intensity far greater than contemplated by the FWS’s Recovery Plan and the Forest Service’s owl standards and guidelines under the pretext that such thinning is necessary to protect the owl and its habitat. 

“The 20th anniversary of the Mexican spotted owls’ formal status as a threatened species serves as a clarion call that ESA listing is not enough to conserve and recover that species.  Listing is meaningless if federal agencies do not follow through,” said Steven Sugarman, attorney for WildEarth Guardians.  “It is especially disheartening to witness the Fish and Wildlife Service – a species’ last line of defense – subordinate science to politics.”

Recent moves by the Forest Service to weaken safeguards for the Mexican spotted owl in Arizona and New Mexico in order to facilitate logging ignore any and all science. Most alarmingly, draft forest plans from Arizona have dropped the standards and guidelines protecting the owl that were hard won by environmentalists two decades ago.  Clearly the FWS and the Forest Service share responsibility for their woeful mismanagement of owl conservation, and Guardians is today providing the Forest Service with a 60-day notice of its intent to join the Forest Service as a defendant in the lawsuit.

View the complaint here

A Short Summary of the MSO

Key Excerpts from the 2012 MSO Revised Recovery Plan


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