Trump Administration Sidelined the Science on a Threatened Owl Species

Published Jul 13, 2021

What happened: The Trump administration removed over three million acres of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, a threatened species, and ignored the concerns raised by federal scientists.

Why it matters: When the federal government ignores the voices of scientists, its decisions will be more based on politics than the public good. The Endangered Species Act requires that decisions concerning threatened or endangered species be based on the best available science. By ignoring the science, the Trump administration imperiled a species at risk of extinction.

Trump administration officials directed the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to release a rule that shrunk the critical habitat of the northern spotted owl by 3.4 million acres without consideration of the science and sidelining the concerns raised by federal scientists. The FWS rule was issued in January 2021 in response to a legal settlement with a lumber association. Instead of trimming the 200,000 acres of critical habitat that FWS had initially proposed in August 2020, the agency finalized a rule that required the removal of 15 times more critical habitat than it had initially proposed.

According to the New York Times, two individuals with knowledge of the decision stated that the large increase in habitat protection removal was done at the behest of Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary David Bernhardt and other senior Trump administration appointees. The final rule failed to include new scientific analyses that supported the change and claimed that “based on upon the best scientific and commercial data available” the change would not cause the owl’s extinction. However, previous analyses carried out by FWS supported the opposite conclusion, so much so that FWS staff in December 2020 ruled that the northern spotted owl should be reclassified as endangered rather threatened.

In a memo issued in January 2021, FWS’ leading northern spotted owl expert, Paul Henson, warned about the dire circumstances of the decision. “Assuming the excluded [critical habitat] areas are harvested to the levels desired by the commenters for whom this exclusion is being made, it is reasonable to conclude that it will result in the extinction of the [owl].

According to FWS, northern spotted owls live in the Pacific Northwest in forests with dense, multilayered canopies that can take 150 to 200 years to develop. Despite receiving protections under the Endangered Species Act since 1990, the spotted owl’s population continues to decline on average of 4 percent every year. This is not the first time that the owls have been threatened by a process that sidelined science in favor of politics. In 2007, under the George W. Bush administration, high ranking officials intervened in a recovery plan for the northern spotted owl in a way that misrepresented the science and downplayed the importance of habitat loss.

When a species goes extinct, it is gone forever. To protect the northern spotted owl, it is vitally important that the government base their decisions on the best available scientific information. By sidelining the science – which showed that the owl species was already facing enormous threats to its survival – and removing millions of acres of critical habitat, the Trump administration showed its willingness to elevate politics over the survival of a threatened species.