PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when it approved a 22,000-acre logging project that affects northern spotted owl habitat in southern Oregon.
In a case dating from 2001, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that would allow logging based on an "incidental take" statement estimating how many owls might be killed.
Any landowners, companies, state or local governments with projects that might incidentally harm - or "take" - wildlife that is listed as endangered or threatened must first obtain an incidental take permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
But the appeals court found the statement supporting the permit for about 75 proposed timber sales in the Rogue River Basin had no scientific foundation, lacked a specific estimate of how many owls would be killed by the logging, and had no "trigger" for keeping track of whether too many owls were being killed.
The ruling was from a three-judge panel of the court.
A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, estimated the ruling could delay the harvest from nine months to two years at a minimum.
The ruling was welcomed by Kristen Boyles, a Seattle attorney for Earthjustice who handled the lawsuit for the environmental groups, which included the Oregon Natural Resources Council, now called Oregon Wild, and the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center.
"But what's really clear, and what we've been saying all along is that, in this race to log the forest, they're skipping over these vital steps," she said. "And when you skip those vital steps you don't know the impact on the forest, or the owls, or the water, and everything else that is affected."
The proposed harvest is in an area of the state where conservation groups are trying to expand federal wild and scenic river protection.