The Obama administration has told a federal judge it wants to take a second look at a federal protection scheme for the northern spotted owl over concern that a former Interior Department official may have tainted the plan.
The Justice Department asked Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia yesterday to remand the recovery plan and critical habitat designation released by the Bush administration last summer.
The Bush plan removed habitat protections for the owl and opened 23 percent of 1.6 million acres designated as critical habitat in Oregon for increased logging and drew a lawsuit from environmental groups.
The Obama administration is asking Sullivan for a 30-day stay on the case while the Fish and Wildlife Service works with environmental groups to re-evaluate the plan.
The filing notes a report by the Interior Department inspector general last December that found the spotted owl and other endangered species designations were improperly influenced by Julie MacDonald, the former Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, prompting a department review of those listing decisions (Greenwire, Dec. 16, 2008).
"The government has concluded its review and has decided that it is appropriate to seek a remand of the recovery plan and revised critical habitat designation," DOJ attorneys wrote in their filing yesterday.
Sullivan has yet to make a motion granting the government's request, but he canceled a pre-trial meeting set for today, said Todd True of the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
Earthjustice filed the lawsuit last year against the Bush administration's spotted owl plan that led to the court case. True said the DOJ motion might lead to the group dropping the lawsuit.
"We're certainly optimistic," True said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service designated the spotted owl a threatened species in 1990. Lawsuits over owl protection by environmental groups prompted the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan, which reduced logging on federal lands by 80 percent.
The Bush administration opposed the forest plan. It preferred a policy known as the Western Oregon Plan Revisions, or WOPR, which would nearly triple timber harvests on 2.6 million acres in western Oregon.
The Oregon plan was finalized weeks before President George W. Bush left office, but True said that it could require re-evaluation should the Obama administration change the spotted owl plans.
"WOPR relied pretty significantly on the critical habitat designation, so I think this action raises some pretty tough questions about its future," True said.
Click here to view the filing.