1989: Fish and Wildlife Service Proposal to List the Spotted Owl as Threatened

In June of 1989, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced its opinion that the spotted owl should be placed on the ‘threatened’ list under the Endangered Species Act. This was a reversal from the agency's decision the year before not to list the owl at all. The FWS had one year to decide how to implement this action within forest management plans, and there was a 90-day public comment period directly following the announcement. The FWS also scheduled several public question and answer hearings.

The timber industry reacted quickly to this announcement. “Save Timber” groups started in many places in the Pacific Northwest. Towns united to fight the listing of the spotted owl, pleading the FWS to take their jobs and families into account. Many logging companies responded with petitions, rallies, and protests, claiming a "Threatened" listing for the spotted owl would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and would cause entire towns to shut down. Environmental groups claimed this number was a huge exaggeration, and that only 1,000 jobs would be lost. Loggers protested by driving around towns with trucks loaded with old growth timber. The timber industry reported a dramatic increase in unemployment, alcoholism, and child abuse due to all the legal injunctions and the possibility that the spotted owl might soon be protected under the ESA. They claimed that information on the spotted owl was inadequate for such an action.

In July, Congress approved 13 million dollars for research on spotted owls. Because of this, many biologists were sent into the woods to learn more about spotted owl habitats and populations, and to help the FWS decide how to manage the forests. One result of this research showed that the bald eagle was also affected by logging of old growth in Alaska. In August, environmentalists began to ask the FWS to list a number of other animal and plant species under the ESA, including a small sea-going bird, the marbled murrelet.

Throughout the remainder of the year, most Pacific Northwest timber sales were halted while the FWS decided what timber should and should not be sold, and how to manage the forests as if the owl were protected under the ESA. At this time, timber industry workers suffered layoffs and mills shut down as the timber supplies fell to unusual lows. Timber mill workers in Canada also grew worried, as protests against logging old growth forests became increasingly common. Canadians blamed the fight in the U.S. for this new trouble, and said it was the reason that some of their loggers were losing jobs and timber sales were being affected.

More negotiations were set up between the timber industry and environmentalists to try to relieve the situation until a decision was made by the FWS how to proceed, but to no avail – neither side could agree to a plan. So it was up to Congress to create an agreement for them. The proposals varied greatly, with some advocating a ban on suits to halt timber sales, and others working to halt logging altogether. A grouping of proposals called the “Hatfield Amendments” were designed to free up timber for logging and to curb the courts’ say in matters of old growth forest, but these amendments encountered strong opposition. Instead, in October of 1989, a milder compromise emerged with a one-year program to help minimize impacts on timber mills and logging towns, while also protecting some forests for spotted owl habitat.

Meanwhile, the FWS continued to work on how to best manage old growth forests. Neither the environmental groups nor the logging industry was very happy with the compromise, and both sides wanted more. As a result of this new temporary plan, many timber injunctions were lifted to allow old growth logging to continue. The FWS was given until June 23, 1990, to decide whether or not to officially list the spotted owl as threatened.


Northern Spotted Owl News clippings 1986 - 1989