July 31, 2001
In an effort to protect the California spotted owl and the Pacific fisher (a relative of the mink and otter), the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal district court, citing a failure of the agency to enforce the Endangered Species Act. Nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice is representing the groups.
“Populations of both the California spotted owl and the Pacific fisher are declining and face a serious risk of extinction,” said Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and primary author of the petitions. “Old growth forests in the Sierra Nevada have been reduced by 60-85 percent as a result of logging on Forest Service and private timberlands. Species like the California spotted owl and fisher, which depend on intact old growth ecosystems, are at great risk.”
The U.S. Forest Service recently adopted the Sierra Nevada Framework plan, which, if fully implemented, would take steps towards protecting and restoring old growth forests on national forest lands in the Sierra Nevada. However, the plan has been appealed by numerous organizations seeking to increase logging and weaken the plan’s environmental protections. In addition, according to Earthjustice, the plan does not affect private lands, where clear-cutting has greatly accelerated in the past several years.
“This lawsuit should serve as a wakeup call to the Bush Administration that any action to weaken or reverse the Sierra Nevada Framework will strengthen the need to protect the owl and fisher under the Endangered Species Act,” said David Edelson, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If the Bush Administration chooses to disregard environmental laws designed to protect species and ecosystems, the inevitable result will be litigation and injunctions against further logging on Forest Service lands.”
The groups petitioned to list the California spotted owl on April 3, 2000, and the Pacific fisher on December 5, 2000 as endangered Under the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to determine if a petition warrants further consideration within 90 days and determine whether a species should be listed within one year. The agency has not made the one-year finding for the owl or the 90-day finding for the fisher and is thus in clear violation of the law. “To further delay their protection under the Endangered Species Act violates the law,” said Laura Hoehn, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the groups in the lawsuit. “Citizens are once again forced into court because time is running out for the owl and fisher,” she said.
California spotted owl description and status
The California spotted owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis) is a medium-sized owl that inhabits mature and old growth forests in California’s Sierra Nevada and southern coastal mountains. There are three recognized subspecies of the spotted owl. The other two subspecies, the northern spotted owl (which inhabits forests in the Pacific Northwest and northern California) and the Mexican spotted owl (which inhabits forests in the Southwest) have already been designated as threatened species under the ESA by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Separate studies in the southern, central and northern Sierra Nevada conducted over the past 10 years have concluded that the California spotted owl’s population is declining by approximately 7 to 11 percent per year. Studies on the Sierra National Forest have estimated a 9-10 percent annual decline, whereas studies on the nearby Sequoia National Park (where logging is prohibited) indicate an approximately constant population, strongly suggesting that logging and other Forest Service management are contributing to the owl’s decline, said Earthjustice.
Owl research in the San Bernardino Mountains also indicates that the owl’s population there is declining by approximately 9 percent per year, the law firm reported. The best estimate of the owl’s population in the Sierra Nevada is approximately 2,000 to 3,000 individuals, significantly lower than the estimated population of the threatened northern spotted owl, and roughly comparable to the estimated population of the Mexican spotted owl when they were listed as a threatened species.
The Center for Biological Diversity has published a set of Web pages providing information about the California spotted owl.
Fisher description and status
The fisher is a relative of the mink and inhabits dense, old forests. In the Pacific coast states, the fisher formerly inhabited old growth forests throughout the Sierra Nevada, northern California, and western Oregon and Washington. As a result of logging, trapping and development, the fisher’s range has been greatly reduced.
Small populations remain in the southern Sierra Nevada, California’s north coastal mountains and in the southern Cascades of Oregon. Leading fisher biologists have found that the populations are “dangerously low.” In particular, because the population in the southern Sierra is small (likely between 100 and 500 individuals) and isolated, U.S. Forest Service researchers have concluded that the species likely faces “a steady decline toward extinction” in the absence of increased protection. In Oregon and Washington, the fisher has largely been extirpated, and any remnant native populations are very small and isolated.
The Center for Biological Diversity has also publishing a set of Web pages providing information about the Pacific fisher.