An environmental advocacy group has agreed to drop its pending lawsuit that accused federal agencies of planning forestry projects that could harm the Mexican spotted owl.
The bird's nesting grounds on national forest land in New Mexico and Arizona have become hotly contested battlegrounds. A separate complaint alleging federal agencies failed to properly monitor the threatened owl prompted a federal judge to halt timber activities in owl habitat last year.
Framed as "a new understanding," a truce was reached this week between the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the states of New Mexico and Arizona, and the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization.
In return for the Center for Biological Diversity scrapping its litigation, the Forest Service has ensured tree-thinning and controlled burns in six national forests in New Mexico and Arizona will better protect the Mexican spotted owl, which has been listed as threatened since 1993 under the Endangered Species Act.
“This landmark understanding provides better protection for this beautiful endangered bird and the rare, large tree-dominated, upper-elevation habitat that the owls need to survive,” said Robin Silver, the center's co-founder, in a statement.
Silver hailed the truce as an example of how conservationists and government entities can work together to protect wildlife and the forests.
The Forest Service agreed to present all projects that involve Mexican spotted owls to the public in a standardized format that will include current data, such as the number of large trees and amount of canopy that will be affected by thinning or prescribed burns.
Future forest projects will include this tracking data as part of a new habitat-monitoring program.
The center had filed a formal intent to sue in April, based on concerns that 13 forest-restoration projects in Arizona and New Mexico failed to provide enough protection for the higher-elevation habitat the owl requires.
Owl habitat makes up about 6 percent of the 900,000 acres undergoing restoration and fire-prevention measures throughout the Southwest, the Center for Biological Diversity said.
This legal action is separate from lawsuits filed by WildEarth Guardians, which sued the federal government in 2013 in an effort to increase protections for the bird. The court dismissed all of the group's complaints except its call for thorough, rangewide monitoring.
Last year, WildEarth Guardians filed a follow-up complaint, saying federal agencies had failed to thoroughly monitor the health of the owl's populations. A federal judge agreed and ordered all timber activities temporarily halted in Cibola, Santa Fe, Carson, Gila and Lincoln national forests in New Mexico and Tonto National Forest in Arizona.
The news release said WildEarth Guardians and the Forest Service have reached a tentative agreement; however, the group's leader couldn't be reached to confirm this Wednesday.
In the past, the group has been a staunch opponent of controlled burns or limited cutting that disturbs any owl habitat.
All parties involved in this week's pact touted it as a strong collaborative effort.
“This new understanding represents our commitment to conducting sustainable restoration projects in a way that benefits all,” said Elaine Kohrman, deputy regional forester for the Southwestern Region of the Forest Service.