U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled Wednesday that the Service must come up with a revised recovery plan within nine months.
The northern spotted owl is a medium-sized nocturnal bird that inhabits old-growth forests of western North America, including parts of northern California, the Pacific Northwest, and British Columbia.
The owl's conservation status and need for critical habitat in the Pacific Northwest has been contentious ever since the bird was listed as threatened 20 years ago because it nests in old growth forests prized by the timber industry.
Judge Sullivan also ordered revisions to the amount of land allowed to the owl as critical habitat. The area set aside for owl conservation had been cut in 2008 during the Bush administration by 1.6 million acres in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
This decision was tainted by political influence by Former Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald, who resigned in disgrace in May 2007 after a scathing report on her influence-peddling was issued by the Interior Department Inspector General.
Northern spotted owl in an Oregon old growth forest (Photo courtesy Umpqua Wild)
MacDonald had jurisdiction over the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Inspector General's report noted the influence of MacDonald on 20 Endangered Species Act decisions and actions, including the recovery plan for the northern spotted owl.
The judge noted in his ruling that MacDonald was a member of an Oversight Committee that advised the northern spotted owl Recovery Team to (i) "put less focus on habitat preservation and to de-link the recovery plan from the Northwest Forest Plan"; (ii) "include a second alternative that did not rely on fixed habitat reserves"; and (iii) "minimize the threat to northern spotted owls from the loss of habitat and emphasize the threat cost to carry out those measures needed to achieve the plan's goal and to achieve intermediate steps toward that goal."
After reviewing records of MacDonald's activities and the Inspector General's report, the Obama administration in March 2009 voluntarily asked the federal court to send back the 2008 spotted owl recovery and habitat plans, after it determined they were "legally erroneous."
Judge Sullivan acknowledged in his ruling, "the federal defendants confess legal error as to the 2008 Critical Habitat Designation and the 2008 Recovery Plan..."
The Obama administration asked the court to order the Service, "after issuance of a revised recovery plan, to evaluate whether revision of the 1992 Critical Habitat Designation is appropriate, and if so, to complete rulemaking for a new critical habitat designation after issuance of a revised recovery plan."
The Service said Thursday it had already begun a revision of the recovery plan and intends to release a draft plan for public comment next week and finalize it later in the year.
The Obama administration had asked the court to vacate the 2008 critical habitat designation and revert to a 1992 plan that set aside 6.88 million acres, a lot larger area, for northern spotted owls. Judge Sullivan denied that request Wednesday, instead leaving the 2008 critical habitat designation in place while ordering its revision.
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