Govt can kill invasive owls to study effect on threatened ones – 9th Circ. – Reuters.com

The threatened Northern Spotted Owl. Courtesy Shane Jeffries/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Handout via REUTERS

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  • Friends of Animals said experiment, timber-company incentives would harm protected birds
  • Court finds U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service complied with all environmental laws

(Reuters) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service legally authorized the killing of thousands of barred owls in Oregon’s old-growth forests to see if it would help the threatened northern spotted owl make a comeback in the area, a federal appeals court affirmed Friday.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Connecticut-based Friends of Animals’ argument that the Barred Owl Removal Experiment was likely to harm to northern spotted owls without any “net conservation benefit” to the species – especially in light of favorable logging permits the government later issued to cooperating timber companies and the Oregon Forestry Department.

The 9th Circuit said Friends was reading the Endangered Species Act too narrowly, and that the 10-year experiment “will produce a ‘net conservation benefit’ … because it allows the agency to obtain critical information to craft a policy to protect threatened or endangered species.”

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Friends’ attorney Jennifer Best said in an email Friday that they were evaluating their options.

“Friends of Animals is deeply concerned by the impact that habitat destruction and climate change have had, and continue to have, on northern spotted owls,” Best said. “However, killing other owls is not the answer to conserving the species and does nothing to address the underlying issues.”

The government’s attorneys at the U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to the opinion by Circuit Judge Kenneth Lee, the northern spotted owl landed on the threatened list in 1990 due to the destruction of old-growth forests in California and Pacific Northwest.

By 2011, another threat was clear: the barred owl, a native of the northeastern United States, had migrated west and was out-competing the native birds for habitat and prey. The agency authorized the 2013 experiment to assess the effect of lessened competition.

Since the study area in Oregon was “a checkerboard of federal, state, and private land,” Lee wrote, the agency entered agreements in 2015 and 2016 with the state and three private landowners, Oxbow Timber I, Roseburg Resource, and Weyerhaeuser.

In exchange for their cooperation, the agency allowed them to harvest timber in designated areas where no resident northern spotted owls had been found for several years. The permits also protected the loggers from prosecution if their operations should incidentally harm or kill the threatened birds.

Friends’ lawsuit, filed in federal court in Eugene in 2017, also challenged the agency’s issuance of those permits without a separate Environmental Impact Statement. The 9th Circuit rejected that claim as well.

The case is Friends of Animals v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service; Martha Williams, in her official capacity as Director.

For Friends of Animals: Jennifer Best of Friends of Animals

For U.S. FWS and Williams: Andrew Bernie and Rachel Heron, U.S. Justice Department; Coby Howell, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Portland, Oregon

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