Lawsuit Launched to Overturn Trump Administration’s Denial of Protection for California Spotted Owl

Conservation groups file a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its failure to protect the endangered owl


Elizabeth Forsyth, Earthjustice, (213) 766-1067

Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495

Susan Britting, Sierra Forest Legacy, (530) 295-8210 

Rebecca Bullis, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-0295



Today, conservation groups filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Trump administration over its failure to protect the California spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act.

In November 2019, the Trump administration’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) found that the spotted owl is declining and likely to be wiped out from large portions of its range from a combination of logging, large fires driven by climate change and the invasive barred owl.

Inexplicably however, FWS concluded that protecting the owl wasn’t warranted.

“The decision by the Trump administration not to protect this iconic, keystone species is not supported by the law, science, or by the facts as asserted by the agency itself,” said Elizabeth Forsyth, staff attorney at Earthjustice’s Los Angeles office. “The Fish and Wildlife Service’s own scientific assessment shows that the California spotted owl’s populations are dramatically declining and that it will be wiped out from large portions of its range. Its decision not to protect the owl is indefensible in the face of its own scientific findings.”

The California subspecies of spotted owl lives in old-growth forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in southern and coastal California and the Sierra San Pedro Martir area of Mexico. The owl’s habitat is under serious threat from current logging practices and climate change impacts, including increased drought, disease, and catastrophic fires.

“Despite 20 years of scientific data showing that California spotted owl populations are declining, the FWS once again caved to pressure from federal agencies and the timber industry by not listing this species,” said Susan Britting, executive director of Sierra Forest Legacy. “Our only recourse now is to hold the agency accountable for ignoring the scientific data that supports listing.”

The California spotted owl population is also threatened by the barred owl, an invasive species taking over spotted owl habitat. Conservation groups have been fighting for protections for decades, presenting evidence of population decline throughout the spotted owl’s range, as well as habitat degradation caused by forestry management practices.

“The California spotted owl and the old forests it depends on needed protections 20 years ago, and needs them more than ever now,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity and author of a 2000 petition to list the owl. “The spotted owl, together with the Endangered Species Act, has been key to protecting old-growth forests from Washington to Arizona, benefitting many other wildlife species. This owl is like an ambassador of old forests and with protection, we can save it.”

The FWS’s determination to decline protection for the spotted owl was based on a Species Status Assessment Report that found that the majority of California spotted owl populations were in decline, with only a tiny fraction thought to be stable. The assessment said the “most likely future scenario” included the species being wiped out from the entire southern and coastal California portions of its range.

The assessment also predicted that threats to the spotted owl’s survival — including invasion of the barred owl, tree mortality, drought conditions, and salvage logging harmful to the owl’s habitat — will increase dramatically.

“We are deeply disappointed in the decision not to list the California spotted owl,” said Pamela Flick, California Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife. “The science is clear — the owl’s population will continue to decline towards extinction without federal protections against further habitat loss and mismanagement. We must continue to fight to save one of California’s iconic old-growth tree-dependent species.”

The groups filing today’s notice are Sierra Forest Legacy, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife. All are represented by Earthjustice.

Read the notice of intent to sue letter.

A California spotted owl in the Stanislaus National Forest.
A California spotted owl in the Stanislaus National Forest. (Ryan Kalinowski / U.S. Forest Service)

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