For the Mexican spotted owl, critical habitat ensures that Forest Service logging does not drive the owl to extinction or limit its recovery.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the critical habitat for the owl in 2004, but the designation was challenged in court by the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association.
The cattle growers alleged that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s critical habitat designation unlawfully included areas not occupied by the species, failed to rely on the best available science, and failed to account for the economic impact of the designation.
In a ruling handed down February 1, the court rejected all the Cattle Growers’ arguments.
"This was a complete victory for the Mexican spotted owl," said attorney Matt Kenna of the Western Environmental Law Center, which represented the Center for Biological Diversity in the case. "All arguments of the Arizona Cattle Growers were rejected, and the critical habitat designation was upheld."
Critical habitat provides essential protection for endangered species by requiring federal agencies to ensure that any projects they fund, permit, or carry out do not jeopardize the continued existence of endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat.
"The Mexican spotted owl will continue to get the habitat protection it needs to survive and recover," said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which intervened in the case in support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "To save endangered species, we have to protect the places they call home."
A published study by the Center for Biological Diversity found that species with designated critical habitat were more than twice as likely to have an improving status and were less than half as likely to be declining as compared to species without critical habitat.
"Despite the efforts of the Cattle Growers, the Mexican spotted owl has a chance at recovery," said Greenwald. "Critical habitat provides an absolutely essential tool to save the owl and the forest habitats it depends on."
The Mexican spotted owl occurs in forests and rocky canyonlands throughout the southwestern United States and Mexico. Their breeding range extends from the southern Rocky Mountains in Colorado and the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah, south through Arizona and New Mexico, and extends along the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains to the southern end of the Mexican Plateau.
Although widely distributed in the southwest, this bird is restricted to isolated tracts of breeding habitat and may be susceptible to habitat loss and climate change due to the owl's dependence on certain microhabitats that mimic mature forests, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
"Dramatic climate change could profoundly alter the distribution and breeding density of spotted owls in the southwest United States through alterations in the extent of suitable habitat," the USGS says.
In response to perceived threats by timber harvest, habitat loss due to fire, increased predation due to habitat fragmentation, and lack of adequate protective regulations, the Mexican spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1993.
A copy of the court’s decision can be found here:
A copy of the final rule designating critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl can be found here:
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