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Third Spotted Owl subspecies will (finally) receive Endangered Species Act protection

California Spotted Owl
A California Spotted Owl at Stanislaus National Forest in northern California. Photo by Ryan Kalinowski/U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that it will protect the California Spotted Owl under the Endangered Species Act. The move comes 33 years after the Northern Spotted Owl was listed as threatened (in June 1990) and 30 years after the Mexican Spotted Owl received the same designation (in March 1993).

Environmental groups first advocated for the California subspecies to be listed in April 2000, when 16 organizations petitioned the Clinton administration to list the bird as either threatened or endangered. Since 2014, three lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the bird, most recently in 2020, when environmental groups noted that: “there are estimated to be less than half as many California Spotted Owls as Northern Spotted Owls, and California Spotted Owls have the most limited genetic variability of all three subspecies, making them at higher risk for extinction.”

Two California Spotted Owl populations

In its listing announcement, FWS says it is recognizing two geographically and genetically distinct population segments (DPSs). The Coastal-Southern California DPS will be listed as endangered and the Sierra Nevada DPS will be listed as threatened.

The Coastal-Southern California DPS is described as covering “the vicinity of the Coast, Transverse, and Peninsular mountain ranges from Monterey County in the north to San Diego County in the south, and south of the Tehachapi Pass within Kern County.”

The Sierra Nevada DPS covers “the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Sierra Nevada foothills from Shasta and Lassen Counties in the north, but north of the Tehachapi Pass, Kern County to the south, and east to Carson City, Douglas, and Washoe Counties in Nevada.”


A press release about the listing says: “California Spotted Owls are distributed across California and Nevada. The owl requires forests that have multi-layered canopy cover, large trees, and a mix of open and densely forested areas for nesting, foraging, and roosting. The greatest ongoing threats to California Spotted Owls include habitat loss resulting from large-scale high-severity wildfires, competition and hybridization with non-native Barred Owls, tree mortality due to drought and beetle infestations, and temperature and precipitation changes related to climate change.”

4(d) rule: Conservation tool or loophole?

The threatened designation for the Sierra Nevada owls includes a provision under Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act. FWS says 4(d) rules “provide for the conservation of a threatened species by tailoring protections to those needed to prevent further decline and facilitate recovery.” In this case, the 4(d) rule “exempts the prohibition of take under the ESA for forest fuels management activities that reduce the risk of large-scale high-severity wildfire.”

The FWS press release further explains: “As large-scale high-severity wildfire is the biggest threat to California Spotted Owl, the Service worked with Sierra Pacific Industries and the U.S. Forest Service to develop coordinated, multi-party fire risk reduction efforts that include the removal of brush and select trees that fuel fires in owl habitat. Most of the land inhabited by California Spotted Owls is managed by the Forest Service and Sierra Pacific Industries. Implementation of their fire risk reduction plans could help improve California Spotted Owl habitat in the coming years.”


A statement from the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups, however, calls the 4(d) rule a “loophole” that “would exempt many logging operations from having to comply with the Act’s rules.”

Despite their criticism of the 4(d) rule, environmental advocates praised the decision to protect the owls.

“These much-needed protections for the California Spotted Owl are long overdue,” said Pam Flick, California program director with Defenders of Wildlife. “The best available science demonstrates that most California Spotted Owl populations have been declining for many years. These new protections under the Endangered Species Act will give this species a fighting chance at recovery.”


“It took way too long for California Spotted Owls to be proposed for Endangered Species Act protections, but I’m thrilled they may finally get these crucial safeguards,” said Justin Augustine, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “I urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to move quickly to bring these endearing birds back from the brink.”

“The listing of California Spotted Owl gives us a much-needed conservation tool to protect this imperiled species and its habitat,” said Susan Britting, executive director for Sierra Forest Legacy. “We are looking to work with the Service and others to use these protections to reverse the decline of this magnificent species.”

FWS is seeking public comment on its listing proposal for the California Spotted Owl from now until April 24, 2023. The proposal and information on how to submit comments can be found on by searching under docket number FWS-R8-ES-2022-0166.


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