At the behest of a North Coast environmental group, the California Fish and Game Commission recently voted to give northern spotted owls "candidacy" status, the first step in listing the species under the California Endangered Species Act.
Spotted owls have been listed under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1990, sparking major upheaval in the Pacific Northwest that included logging cutbacks and many lawsuits.
But local environmentalists petitioned for spotted owl listing under the California law also because they say it will give the species more protection.
Members of the North Coast's redwood timber industry say they are already engaged in many protective measures for the spotted owl, and they fought the state listing out of concern that it could negatively impact timber operations.
"It's the issue of uncertainty," said Gary Rynearson, forest policy and communications manager for Green Diamond Resource Company, which owns almost 400,000 acres of timber land in Del Norte and Humboldt counties. He said that his company is concerned that its current procedures that fulfill federal requirements - and have taken years to develop - might not meet state requirements.
Rynearson appeared before the California Fish and Game Commission in early August to urge the commission to vote against candidacy status for the Northern Spotted Owls.
"While we feel very comfortable we have one of the most robust owl programs in the state in the territory of the northern spotted owl, what happens when this becomes a candidate?" Rynearson said at the commission meeting. "Will our protocols be acceptable and will our habitat standards be acceptable to another set of eyes and another set of reviewers?"
The commission ultimately approved the candidacy status for the northern spotted owl on a 3-2 vote.
The Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) petitioned for the owl's listing under California law in August 2012.
Richard Rogers, vice president of the commission, said that the petition might not even be valid since it "underplayed" current levels of state and federal management. He along, with commissioner Jim Kellogg, voted against the owl's candidacy.
Commission president Michael Sutton said that he would prefer the benefit of a status review of the species that would come with the candidacy listing.
"We've seen evidence that this species is beginning to recover," Sutton said before the vote. "That's great, but just because the treatment is working doesn't meanthe patient is out of the hospital yet."
State, fed differences
One of the primary differences between the federal and California endangered species acts draws from the issue of "take," which means anything from killing or capturing a species (under both acts) to simply harassing or harming a species under the federal law.
Both laws allow for individuals and organizations to apply for "incidental take permits" that allow for some "take" of a species, but under the California Endangered Species Act, that take must be "fully mitigated" and the mitigation actions must be "capable of successful implementation."
Someone with a take permit under the federal ESA is only required to mitigate take "to the extent practicable."
Green Diamond has already developed strong relationships with federal agencies while developing its Habitat Conservation Plan, and the "uncertainty" that could come with state listing is unsettling, Rynearson said.
"What does it mean to fully mitigate?" Rynearson said by phone. The answer is unknown, he added.
More biologists sought
EPIC also argued that if a state listing for spotted owls is obtained, then timber harvest plans will undergo more vigorous review by state biologists than they currently do with federal listing.
"Having state biologists in the field reviewing these things will improve the chances for the owl," said Andrew Orahoske, EPIC's conservation director.
Rob DiPerna, who monitors timber harvest plans for EPIC, told the commission that biologists are hardly involved in the currentprocess for reviewing timber harvest plans, and that state listing would change that.
"The fact that the commission moved to promote northern spotted owls to candidacy status clearly shows that we have made a fair argument that the species is under extreme threat, and that protections under CESA are necessary to abate the risk of extinction," DiPerna said in a press release.
During the commission meeting, Noelle Cremers of the California Farm Bureau Federation argued that the state listing could actually hurt the owl.
"What a listing of the northern spotted owl would do is just create an additional regulatory burden for those landowners that are already operating on a very thin margin," Cremers said. "It adds incentive to sell to someone else that might use that land for another purpose rather than for forestry, which ultimately is worse for the owls."
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife will conduct a status review of northern spotted owls within a year and present that review to the commission, which will vote on whether or not the owl is listed under the California Endangered Species Act.
Reach Adam Spencer at email@example.com .