Environmental Group, Federal Agencies Negotiate Truce On Mexican Spotted Owl

Nov 2, 2020

A nonprofit environmental group has negotiated a truce with federal agencies after a long-running lawsuit over the threatened Mexican Spotted Owl. WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013, saying the agencies failed to monitor owl populations in Southwestern forests and assess the effects of thinning and burning. The new agreement promises to remedy that on all eleven national forests in Arizona and New Mexico. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians.

Credit audubon.org

This agreement that was negotiated resolves this long running lawsuit. Can you explain what it is?

I feel good about this agreement…It really is requiring the agency to do what is legally obligated to do, what a prudent land manager should do, which is to really rigorously adaptively manage and gather population data at a regional range-wide scale, habitat data at a both regional and local scale, and then to monitor owls as a project scale as well…Any one data point might not be significant but when you gather all this various data… that gives you a picture. And if all those data points are starting to indicate downward trends, then you better be doing something differently.

In addition to the monitoring that you’re describing, another part of the agreement was they’re going to set up a Mexican Spotted Owl leadership forum. Can you tell me what that is?

The leadership forum is reflective of the spirit of the agreement which is a collaborative one. You don’t reach an agreement after years and years of conflict without exercising those collaborative muscles and believing in the value of consensus. How do you carry that forward? So we wanted the agreement to …structure an opportunity for all kinds of people who care about national forests to convene and discuss critical issues around wildfire, spotted owls, other endangered species, whatever forest management issues are really critical in that moment.

As a result of this compromise the injunction that was halting tree cutting on some national forests in Arizona and New Mexico, that’s now been lifted, is that right?

Yeah. The injunction was lifted on Wednesday, October 28….An Arizona judge issued an the injunction on September 11, 2019…It meant that all kinds of forest activities were, in a moment, illegal….Over time we narrowed the scope of the injunction to allow for certain activities to proceed. The final act of dissolving the injunction means that a bunch of logging projects that were in the pipeline that the agency had approved can now proceed.

These activities, thinning trees and prescribed burns, are very important for the health of our forest and reducing wildfire risk. Going forward, how do you see balancing those types of activities with the health of the Mexican Spotted Owl?

That’s the great challenge that lies ahead… I think we can harmonize all those interests. But we don’t know that… That’s why this agreement is so significant, because it will provide all of us information that we hope will influence future decisions that the agencies makes, and that those decisions will better protect owls and forests…. We are blessed in the Southwest with so many unique species, and so it’s an obligation and a responsibility that we have to make sure none of these species go extinct.

John Horning, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you.