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Daily Rules, Proposed Rules, and Notices of the Federal Government

DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

Fish and Wildlife Service

50 CFR Part 17

[FWS-R1-ES-2011-0112; 4500030114]

RIN 1018-AX69

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Designation of Revised Critical Habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.
ACTION: Final rule.
SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, designate revised critical habitat for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) under the Endangered Species Act. In total, approximately 9,577,969 acres (ac) (3,876,064 hectares (ha)) in 11 units and 60 subunits in California, Oregon, and Washington fall within the boundaries of the critical habitat designation.
DATES: The rule becomes effective on January 3, 2013.
ADDRESSES: The final rule and the associated economic analysis and environmental assessment are available on the Internet athttp://www.regulations.govat Docket No. FWS-R1-ES-2011-0112. Comments and materials received, as well as supporting documentation used in preparing this final rule, are available for public inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours, at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office, 2600 SE. 98th Ave., Suite 100, Portland, OR 97266; telephone 503-231-6179; facsimile 503-231-6195.

The coordinates or plot points or both from which the maps are generated are included in the administrative record for this critical habitat designation and are available athttp://www.fws.gov/oregonfwo,athttp://www.regulations.govat Docket No. FWS-R1-ES-2011-0112, and at the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office (seeFOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT). The additional tools and supporting information that we developed for this critical habitat designation are available at the Fish and Wildlife Service Web site and Field Office set out above and athttp://www.regulations.gov.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Paul Henson, Field Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office, 2600 SE. 98th Ave., Suite 100, Portland, OR 97266; telephone 503-231-6179; facsimile 503-231-6195. If you use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD), call the Federal Information Relay Service (FIRS) at 800-877-8339.
SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Organization of the Final Rule

This final rule describes the revised critical habitat designation for the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act) (16 U.S.C. 1531et seq.). The pages that follow summarize the comments and information received in response to the proposed designation published on March 8, 2012 (77 FR 14062), and in response to the notice of availability of the draft economic analysis and draft environmental assessment of the proposed revised designation published on June 1, 2012 (77 FR 32483), describe any changes from the proposed rule, and detail the final designation for the northern spotted owl. To assist the reader, the content of the document is organized as follows:

I. Executive Summary II. Background Introduction An Ecosystem-Based Approach to the Conservation of the Northern Spotted Owl and Managing Its Critical Habitat Critical Habitat and the Northwest Forest Plan Forest Management Activities in Northern Spotted Owl Critical Habitat Research and Adaptive Management The Biology and Ecology of the Northern Spotted Owl III. Previous Federal Actions IV. Changes From the Proposed Rule V. Changes From Previously Designated Critical Habitat VI. Critical Habitat Background Physical or Biological Features Physical Influences Related to Features Essential to the Northern Spotted Owl Biological Influences Related to Features Essential to the Northern Spotted Owl Physical or Biological Features by Life-History Function Primary Constituent Elements for the Northern Spotted Owl Special Management Considerations or Protection VII. Criteria Used To Identify Critical Habitat Occupied Areas Summary of Determination of Areas That Are Essential Unoccupied Areas VIII. Final Critical Habitat Designation IX. Effects of Critical Habitat Designation Section 7 Consultation Determinations of Adverse Effects and Application of the “Adverse Modification” Standard Section 7 Process Under This Critical Habitat Rule X. Exemptions XI. Exclusions XII. Summary of Comments and Responses Comments From Peer Reviewers Comments From Federal Agencies Comments From State Agencies Comments From Counties Public Comments Economic Analysis Comments Environmental Assessment Comments XIII. Required Determinations Regulatory Planning and Review—Executive Order 12866/13563 Regulatory Flexibility Act (5 U.S.C. 601 et seq.) Energy Supply, Distribution, or Use—Executive Order 13211 Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (2 U.S.C. 1501 et seq.) Takings—Executive Order 12630 Federalism—Executive Order 13132 Civil Justice Reform—Executive Order 12988 Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (44 U.S.C. 3501 et seq.) National Environmental Policy Act (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.) Government-to-Government Relationship With Tribes XIV. References Cited Regulation Promulgation I. Executive Summary

Why we need to publish a rule.This is a final rule to designate revised critical habitat for the northern spotted owl. Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act), designations and revisions of critical habitat can only be completed through rulemaking.

We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), listed the northern spotted owl as threatened on June 26, 1990 (55 FR 26114), because of widespread loss of habitat across its range and the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms to conserve it. We previously designated critical habitat for the northern spotted owl in 1992 and 2008. The 2008 designation (73 FR 47326, August 13, 2008) was subsequently challenged in court. In July 2009, the Federal Government requested voluntary remand of the 2008 revised critical habitat designation. On March 8, 2012, we published in theFederal Registera revised proposed critical habitat designation for the northern spotted owl (77 FR 14062). This rule complies with the court-ordered deadline to submit a final revised critical habitat rule for the northern spotted owl to theFederal Registerby November 21, 2012.

Section 4(b)(2) of the Act states that the Secretary shall designate critical habitat on the basis of the best available scientific data after taking into consideration the economic impact, national security impact, and any other relevant impact of specifying any particular area as critical habitat. The critical habitat areas we are designating in this rule constitute our current best assessment of the areas that meet thedefinition of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl.

The rule revises our designation of critical habitat in Washington, Oregon, and California.Consistent with the best scientific data available, the standards of the Act and our regulations, we are designating 9,577,969 ac (3,876,064 ha) in 11 units and 60 subunits in California, Oregon, and Washington that meet the definition of critical habitat. The approximate totals by State and comparison to previous designations are outlined below, as follows (note some units and subunits overlap State boundaries; therefore, totals do not add up to 11 units and 60 subunits):

• Approximately 2,918,067 ac (1,180,898 ha) in 4 units and 26 subunits in Washington.

• Approximately 4,557,852 ac (1,844,496 ha) in 8 units and 58 subunits in Oregon.

• Approximately 2,102,050 ac (850,669 ha) in 5 units and 36 subunits in California.

• This designation increases previously designated critical habitat, including the addition of 272,026 ac (110,085 ha) ac of State lands. However, this final critical habitat designation is a decrease from the 13,962,449 ac (5,649,660 ha) identified as meeting the definition of critical habitat in the March 8, 2012 (77 FR 14062) proposed rule.

• We have also excluded areas of State and private land from this designation of critical habitat under section 4(b)(2) of the Act, as explained in the Exclusions section of this rule.

The Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (USFWS 2011; hereafter “Revised Recovery Plan”) recommends that land managers: (1) conserve older forest, high-value habitat, and areas occupied by northern spotted owls; and (2) actively manage forests to restore ecosystem health in many parts of the species' range. In developing this critical habitat designation, we also recognize the importance of the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) and its land management strategy for conservation of native species associated with old-growth and late-successional forest, including the northern spotted owl. The designation of areas as critical habitat does not change land use allocations or Standards and Guidelines for management under the NWFP, nor does this rule establish any management plan or prescriptions for the management of critical habitat. However, we encourage land managers to consider implementation of forest management practices recommended in the Revised Recovery Plan to restore natural ecological processes where they have been disrupted or suppressed (e.g.,natural fire regimes), and application of “ecological forestry” management practices (e.g., Gustafssonet al.2012, entire; Franklinet al.2007, entire; Kuuluvian and Grenfellet al.2012 entire) within critical habitat to reduce the potential for adverse impacts associated with commercial timber harvest when such harvest is planned within or adjacent to critical habitat. In sum, the Service encourages land managers to consider the conservation of existing high-quality northern spotted owl habitat, the restoration of forest ecosystem health, and the ecological forestry management practices recommended in the Revised Recovery Plan that are compatible with both the goals of northern spotted owl recovery and Standards and Guidelines of the NWFP.

The basis for our action.This final critical habitat designation is based on the current status and recent scientific research on northern spotted owl populations. We used the best scientific information available to identify those specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it was listed on which are found those physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species, and which may require special management considerations or protection. For the northern spotted owl, these features include particular forest types that are used or likely to be used by northern spotted owls for nesting, roosting, foraging, or dispersing habitat. In addition, we used the best available information to identify those areas that are otherwise determined to be essential to the conservation of the species.

We relied on the recovery criteria set forth in the Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (USFWS 2011) to determine what is essential to the conservation of the species; therefore we have identified a habitat network that meets the following criteria:

• Ensures sufficient habitat to support stable, healthy populations across the range, and also within each of the 11 recovery units;

• Ensures distribution of northern spotted owl populations across the range of habitat conditions used by the species;

• Incorporates uncertainty, including potential effects of barred owls, climate change, and wildfire disturbance risk; and

• Recognizes that these protections are meant to work in concert with other recovery actions, such as barred owl management.

To assist us in determining critical habitat, we integrated habitat and demographic information (relating to occupancy, survival, reproduction, and movement) to develop a modeling tool that assesses the distribution of habitat quality and population dynamics across the range, and provides a more accurate picture of where high-quality northern spotted owl habitat exists. This model synthesized more than 20 years of data from on-the-ground demographic surveys, and allowed for analysis of how northern spotted owl populations would fare under different habitat conservation scenarios. We determined what is essential to recovery of the northern spotted owl by evaluating the performance of each potential critical habitat scenario considered against the recovery needs of the owl.

Peer reviewers support our methods.We solicited expert opinions from knowledgeable individuals with scientific expertise that included familiarity with the species, the geographic region in which the species occurs, and conservation biology principles. These peer reviewers generally concurred with our methods and conclusions and provided additional information, clarifications, and suggestions to improve this final rule.

Consistency with Presidential Directive.On February 28, 2012, the President issued a memorandum to the Secretary of the Interior regarding the proposed revised critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, specifically on minimizing regulatory burdens. The Service has fully addressed each of the directives in this memo and has taken steps to comply with this directive, including:

• We conducted and completed, as is the Service's normal practice, an economic analysis on the probable impacts of the proposed revised critical habitat. • We provided a description of ecological forestry management actions that may be compatible with both northern spotted owl recovery and timber harvest, as recommended in the Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl. This discussion appears in the following sections of this rule: ○ An Ecosystem-based Approach to the Conservation of the Northern Spotted Owl and Managing Its Critical Habitat ○ Special Management Considerations or Protection ○ Determination of Adverse Effects and Application of the “AdverseModification” Standard. We note, however, that this discussion of ecological forestry is provided to Federal, State, local and private land managers, as well as the public, for their consideration as they make decisions on the management of forest land under their jurisdictions and through their normal processes. This critical habitat rule itself does not take any action or adopt any policy, plan, or program in relation to active forest management.

• As per the Service's normal practice, we solicited public review and comment on this rulemaking action, using information thus gained to correct and refine our designation.

• We fully considered exclusion of private lands and State lands from the final revised critical habitat, consistent with the best available scientific and commercial information.

The Service appreciates, and is sensitive to, the potential for regulatory burden that may result from our designation of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl under the Act. Our analysis indicated that the revision of critical habitat could have relatively little incremental effect above and beyond the conservation measures already required as a result of its threatened species status under the Act, and thus is not expected to impose substantial additional regulatory burdens. The Service appreciates, and relies on the many partners we have in conservation, including private landowners, Tribes, States, and local governments, and strongly desires to promote conservation partnerships to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

Costs and benefits.In order to identify and analyze the potential economic impacts of the designation of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, we worked with a contractor to draft an economic analysis report, which was released in May of 2012 and finalized following consideration and incorporation of public comment. The report looked at a variety of economic activities including timber harvest, wildlife management, road construction, and other forest management activities, but focused primarily on timber management. It concludes that only a relatively small portion of the overall proposed revised designation may result in more than minor incremental administrative costs. It found that potential incremental changes in timber harvests on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands may occur on approximately 1,449,534 ac (585,612 ha) proposed for designation, or 10 percent of the total lands included in the proposed designation and that there is the potential for 307,308 ac (123,364 ha) of private land to experience incremental changes in harvests, or approximately 2 percent of total lands proposed. No incremental changes in harvests are expected on State lands.

II. Background

It is our intent to discuss only those topics directly relevant to the revised designation of critical habitat in this rule. For further details regarding northern spotted owl biology and habitat, population abundance and trend, distribution, demographic features, habitat use and conditions, threats, and conservation measures, please see the Northern Spotted Owl 5-year Review Summary and Evaluation, completed October 26, 2011, and the Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (USFWS 2011), completed July 1, 2011. Both of these documents are available on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Endangered Species Web site athttp://ecos.fws.gov/;under “Species Search,” enter “northern spotted owl.” As detailed below, Appendix C of the Revised Recovery Plan is particularly informative, as we used the habitat modeling process it describes as a tool to help identify areas containing the essential physical and biological features or areas that were otherwise essential to the conservation of the northern spotted owl in this revised designation of critical habitat. Furthermore, the recovery criteria for the northern spotted owl, as described in the Revised Recovery Plan (USFWS 2011, pp. I-1 to I-2), helped to discriminate between the various scenarios considered in the modeling process in terms of assessing which of the habitat networks evaluated included what is essential to the conservation of the northern spotted owl in the most efficient configuration possible.

Introduction

The northern spotted owl inhabits structurally complex forests from southwestern British Columbia through Washington and Oregon to northern California. The northern spotted owl was listed under the Act as a threatened species in 1990 because of widespread loss of habitat across its range and the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms to conserve it (55 FR 26114; June 26, 1990). Although the rate of loss of habitat due to timber harvest has been reduced on Federal lands over the past two decades, both past and current habitat loss remain a threat to the northern spotted owl. Despite implementation of habitat conservation measures in the early 1990s, Thomaset al.(1990, p. 5) and USDI (1992, Appendix C) foresaw that owl populations would continue to decline for several decades, even with habitat conservation, as the consequence of lag effects at both individual and population levels. However, many populations of northern spotted owls have declined at a faster rate than anticipated, especially in the northern parts of the subspecies' range (Anthonyet al.2006, pp. 31-32; Forsmanet al.2011, pp. 65, 76). We now know that the suite of threats (detailed below) facing the northern spotted owl differs from those at the time it was listed; in addition to the effects of historical and ongoing habitat loss, the northern spotted owl faces a new significant and complex threat in the form of competition from the congeneric (referring to a member of the same genus) barred owl (USFWS 2011, pp. I-7 to I-8).

During the second half of the 20th century, barred owls expanded their range from eastern to western North America, and the range of the barred owl now completely overlaps that of the northern spotted owl (Gutiérrezet al.1995, p. 3; Crozieret al.2006, p. 761). Barred owls compete with northern spotted owls for habitat and resources for breeding, feeding, and sheltering, and the presence of barred owls has significant negative effects on northern spotted owl reproduction, survivorship, and successful occupation of territories (see Population Status and Trends, below). The loss of habitat has the potential to intensify competition with barred owls by reducing the total amount of resources available to the northern spotted owl and by increasing the likelihood and frequency of competitive interactions. While there are important differences in the ecology between barred owls and northern spotted owls, barred owls select very similar habitat for breeding, feeding, and sheltering, and loss of habitat has the potential to intensify competition between species. While conserving habitat will not completely alleviate the barred owl threat, Duggeret al.(2011, pp. 2464-2465) found that northern spotted owl occupancy and colonization rates decreased as both barred owl presence increased and available habitat decreased. Similar to another case in which increased suitable habitat was required to support two potentially competing raptors, these authors concluded that increased habitat protection for northern spotted owlsmay be necessary to provide for sustainable populations in the presence of barred owls in some areas (Duggeret al.2011, p. 2467). Maintaining high-quality habitat has been important since the northern spotted owl was initially listed as a threatened species in 1990, and this competitive pressure from barred owls has intensified the need to conserve and restore large areas of contiguous, high-quality habitat across the range of the northern spotted owl (Duggeret al.2011, p. 2464; Forsmanet al.2011, p. 76; USFWS 2011, Recovery Action 32 [RA32], p. III-67).

It is becoming increasingly evident that solely securing habitat will not be effective in achieving the recovery of the northern spotted owl when barred owls are present (USFWS 2011, p. vi). While conservation of high-quality habitat is essential for the recovery and conservation of the owl, habitat conservation alone is not sufficient to achieve recovery objectives. As stated in the Revised Recovery Plan, “* * * addressing the threats associated with past and current habitat loss must be conducted simultaneously with addressing the threats from barred owls. Addressing the threat from habitat loss is relatively straightforward with predictable results. However, addressing a large-scale threat of one raptor on another, closely related raptor has many uncertainties” (USFWS 2011, p. I-8). A designation of critical habitat is intended to ameliorate habitat-based threats to an endangered or threatened species; critical habitat cannot reasonably be expected to fully address other, non-habitat-related threats to the species. In the case of the northern spotted owl, the recovery goal of supporting population viability and demographically stable populations of northern spotted owls will likely require habitat conservation in concert with the implementation of recovery actions that address other, non-habitat-based threats to the species, including the barred owl. In addition, recovery actions include scientific evaluation of potential management options to reduce the impact of barred owls on northern spotted owls (USFWS 2011, Recovery Action 29 [RA29], p. III-65), and implementation of management actions determined to be effective (USFWS 2011, Recovery Action 30 [RA30], p. III-65).

When developing a critical habitat rule, the Service must use the best scientific information available to identify critical habitat as defined in section (3)(5)(A) of the Act, which are (i) the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it was listed that provide the physical or biological features essential for the conservation of the species, and which may require special management considerations or protection, and (ii) specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it was listed that are otherwise determined to be essential to the conservation of the species. However, like most critical habitat designations, this rule addresses elements of risk management, because we must make recommendations and decisions in the face of incomplete information and uncertainty about factors influencing northern spotted owl populations. This uncertainty exists even though the northern spotted owl is among the most thoroughly studied of listed species. We understand a great deal about the habitats the subspecies prefers and the factors that influence its demographic trends. Nonetheless, considerable uncertainty remains, particularly about interactions among different factors that threaten the owl.

In the face of such uncertainty, the Revised Recovery Plan proposes strategies to address the primary threats to the northern spotted owl from habitat loss and barred owls (USFWS 2011, p. I-7). The effects of climate change and of past management practices are changing forest ecosystem processes and dynamics, including patterns of wildfires, insect outbreaks, and disease, to a degree greater than anticipated in the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) (Hessburget al.2005, pp. 134-135; Carrollet al.2010, p. 899; Spieset al.2010, entire; USFWS 2011, p. I-8). At the same time, the expansion of barred owl populations is altering the capacity of intact habitat to support northern spotted owls. Projecting the effects of these factors and their interactions into the future leads to even higher levels of uncertainty, especially considering how the influences of different threats may vary across the owl's large geographical range. It is clear that ecosystem-level changes are occurring within the northern spotted owl's forest habitat.

The development of a critical habitat network for the northern spotted owl must take into account current uncertainties, such as those associated with barred owl impacts and climate change predictions (USFWS 2011, p. III-10). These uncertainties require that we make some assumptions about likely future conditions in developing, modeling, and evaluating potential critical habitat for the northern spotted owl; those assumptions are identified clearly in this rule (see Criteria Used to Identify Critical Habitat, below) and in our supporting documentation (Dunket al.2012b, entire).

Given the continued decline of northern spotted owl populations, the apparent increase in severity of the threat from barred owls, and information indicating a recent loss of genetic diversity for the subspecies, retaining both occupied northern spotted owl sites and unoccupied, high-value northern spotted owl habitat across the subspecies' range are key components for recovery (USFWS 2011, p. I-9). High-value habitat is defined in the Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (USFWS 2011) as habitat that is important for maintaining northern spotted owls on landscapes, including areas with current and historic use by northern spotted owls. We refer readers to the glossary (Appendix G) of the Revised Recovery Plan for definitions of forest stand conditions and habitat types discussed in this rule.

Accordingly, in this rule, we have identified areas of habitat occupied at the time of listing that provide the physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the northern spotted owl, and that may require special management considerations or protection. When occupied areas were not adequate to achieve essential recovery goals, we also identified some unoccupied areas as critical habitat for the northern spotted owl only upon a determination that such areas are essential to the conservation of the species (see the second part of the definition of critical habitat in section (3)(5)(a)(ii), which states that critical habitat also includes “specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing in accordance with the provisions of section 4 of this Act, upon a determination by the Secretary that such areas are essential for the conservation of the species.”) However, it is important to note that this revised designation of critical habitat does not include all sites where northern spotted owls are presently known to occur. The habitat modeling that we used, in part, to assist us in developing this revised designation was based primarily on present habitat suitability. While we did also consider the present known locations of northern spotted owls in refining the identified habitat network, not all such sites were included in the revised designation if those areas did not make a significant contribution to population viability (for example, if known sites were too small or isolated to play a meaningful role in the conservation of the species; see Criteria Used to Identify Critical Habitat). This is in accordance with section 3(5)(C) ofthe Act, which specifies that “critical habitat shall not include the entire geographical area which can be occupied by the threatened or endangered species.”

Because of the uncertainties associated with the effects of barred owl interactions with the northern spotted owl and habitat changes that may occur as a result of climate change, active adaptive forest management strategies will be needed to achieve results in certain landscapes. Active adaptive forest management is a systematic approach for improving resource management by learning from the results of explicit management policies and practices and applying that learning to future management decisions (USFWS 2011, p. G-1). This critical habitat rule identifies key sources of uncertainty, and the need to learn from our management of forests that provide habitat for northern spotted owls. We have designated a critical habitat network that was developed based on what we determined to be the areas containing the physical and biological features essential for the conservation of the northern spotted owl or are otherwise essential to owl conservation, after taking into consideration information on essential habitats, the current distribution of those habitats, and the best available scientific knowledge about northern spotted owl population dynamics, while acknowledging uncertainty about future conditions in Pacific Northwest forests.

An Ecosystem-Based Approach to the Conservation of the Northern Spotted Owl and Managing Its Critical Habitat

Section 2 of the Act states, “The purposes of this Act are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.” Although the conservation of the listed species is the specific objective of a critical habitat designation, the essential physical or biological features that serve as the basis of critical habitat are often essential components of the ecosystem upon which the species depends. In such cases, a fundamental goal of critical habitat management is not only to conserve the listed species, but also to conserve the ecosystem upon which that species depends. This is the case with the northern spotted owl.

An ecosystem is defined as a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment, or as the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit (Krebs 1972, pp. 10-11; Ricklefs 1979, pp. 31-32, 869). These ecosystem interactions and functions are often referred to as ecological relationships or processes. Thus, to conserve the northern spotted owl as directed by the Act, one must also conserve the ecological processes that occur within the ecological landscape inhabited by the species. These processes—such as vegetation succession, forest fire regimes, and nutrient cycling—create and shape the physical or biological features that form the foundation of critical habitat. The northern spotted owl was initially listed as a threatened species largely due to the loss or degradation of the late-successional forest ecosystems upon which it depends. A complex interaction of physical or biological factors contribute to the development and maintenance of these ecosystems, which in turn provide the northern spotted owl with the environmental conditions required for its conservation and survival, such as large areas of suitable habitat, nest structures, and sufficient prey to sustain interconnected populations of owls across the landscape. A fundamental goal of critical habitat management should thus be to understand, describe, and conserve these processes, which in turn will maintain the physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species. This “ecosystem approach” will ultimately have the highest likelihood of conserving listed species such as the northern spotted owl in the long term (Knight 1998, p. 43).

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the great majority of areas being designated as revised northern spotted owl critical habitat, has prioritized restoring and maintaining natural ecological function and resiliency to its forest lands (Blateet al.2009, entire; USDA 2010, entire; Tidwell 2011, entire). Active adaptive forest management within critical habitat, as discussed herein for the consideration of land managers, may be fully compatible and consistent with these landscape-level ecosystems. Most importantly, this approach is compatible with the ecosystem-based approach of the Northwest Forest Plan.

Revised critical habitat for the northern spotted owl includes a diverse forest landscape that covers millions of acres and contains several different forest ecosystems and thousands of plant and animal species. It ranges from moist old-growth conifer forest in the western portion, to a mix of conifers and hardwood trees in the Klamath region, to dry, fire-prone forests in the eastern Cascades. Thousands of species occur in these forest ecosystems, including other listed and sensitive species with very specific biological needs. In areas where prescribed management is needed to maintain ecosystem function, such management is often expensive, logistically difficult, and contentious (Thompsonet al.2009, p. 29). Many scientists believe a single-species approach to forest management is limited and that land managers need to focus on broader landscape goals that address ecosystem process and future habitat conditions (see, e.g., Thomaset al.2006, p. 286; Boydet al.2008, p. 42; Hobbset al.2010, p. 487; Mori 2011, pp. 289-290). The Revised Recovery Plan (USFWS 2011) encourages the application of ecosystem management principles to ensure the long-term conservation of the northern spotted owl and its habitat, as well as other species dependent on these shared ecosystems.

We reference here the recommendations for habitat management as made in the Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (USFWS 2011). This discussion is provided primarily for consideration by Federal, State, local, and private land managers, as they make decisions on the management of forest land under their jurisdictions and through their normal processes. This critical habitat rule does not take any action or adopt any policy, plan or program in relation to active forest management.

Critical Habitat and the Northwest Forest Plan

It is important to understand the relationship between northern spotted owl critical habitat and the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP). In brief, the designation of areas as critical habitat does not change land use allocations or Standards and Guidelines for management under the NWFP. Critical habitat for the northern spotted owl was first designated in 1992 (January 15, 1992; 57 FR 1796). Since 1994, the NWFP has also served as an important landscape-level plan that has contributed to the conservation of the northern spotted owl and late-successional forest habitat on Federal lands across the range of the species (Thomaset al.2006, pp. 278-284). The NWFP introduced a system of reserves where conservation of late-successional forest, riparian habitats, northern spotted owls, and other species dependent on older forest would be the priority, and matrix areas where timber harvest would be the goal. The Standards and Guidelines for the NWFP (USDA and USDI 1994) prescribe an ecosystem-based approach to management for the Federal actionagencies that manage these lands, and provide guidance for activities conducted on different land use allocations. All Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands identified as northern spotted owl critical habitat in this rule fall under the NWFP, and should be managed consistent with its standards. Here we briefly provide a summary of how our designation of critical habitat has been informed by and relates to forest management under the NWFP.

In developing this critical habitat designation, the Service recognizes the importance of the NWFP as the overarching land management strategy for conservation of the northern spotted owl and other native species associated with old-growth and late-successional forest. The system of reserves within the NWFP is essential for the conservation and development of large areas of late-successional forest across the landscape; however, because the NWFP was designed to benefit multiple species not every acre of the late-successional reserves (LSRs) provide high-quality habitat for northern spotted owls. In addition, barred owls have become increasingly abundant in the Pacific Northwest and likely have a large effect on the continued decline of northern spotted owl populations. With barred owls now sharing the range of the northern spotted owl, conservation of northern spotted owls outside NWFP reserved areas is increasingly important for species recovery.

In our designation of critical habitat on Federal lands, we identified lands that contain the features essential to the conservation of the species including lands both within NWFP reserves and matrix that function as highly valuable northern spotted owl habitat. As noted above, designation as critical habitat does not change these land use allocations or Standards and Guidelines for management under the NWFP, and we fully recognize the ecological functions and land management goals of the different land use allocations as outlined under the NWFP. While the NWFP has been successful in conserving large blocks of late-successional forest (Thomaset al.2006, p. 283, Daviset al.2011, p. 38), concerns have been expressed that it provides less than the anticipated level of commercial timber harvest on matrix lands, does not promote active restoration in areas that may contain uncharacteristically high risk of severe fire (Spieset al.2006, pg. 359; Thomaset al.2006, p. 277), and does not promote development of complex early-seral forest in areas where regeneration harvest has been conducted (Bettset al.2010, p. 2117; Hagar 2007, p. 109; Swansonet al.2011, p. 124) (“seral” refers to developmental or successional stages of the forest community that influences species composition, i.e., early, mid, late seral stages).

Thomaset al.(2006, pp. 284-287) provided three recommendations to improve the NWFP. These recommendations are highly relevant to northern spotted owl critical habitat conservation and management:

1. Conserve old-growth trees and forests on Federal landswherever they are found(emphasis added), and undertake appropriate restoration treatment in the threatened forest types.

2. Manage NWFP forests as dynamic ecosystems that conserve all stages of forest development (e.g., encompassing the range of conditions between early-seral and old-growth), and where tradeoffs between short-term and long-term risks are better balanced.

3. Recognize the NWFP as an integrated conservation strategy that contributes to all components of sustainability across Federal lands.

It is our hope that management of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl will be compatible with these broader landscape management goals articulated by Thomaset al.(2006, pp. 284-287). Furthermore, the Standards and Guidelines for the NWFP encourage an ecosystem-based approach to land management (e.g.,USDA and USDI 1994, p. A-1, Standards and Guidelines, pp. C-12, C-13). As discussed in the Revised Recovery Plan, recovery of the northern spotted owl will likely require that an ecosystem management approach that includes both passive and active management, to meet a variety of conservation goals that support long-term northern spotted owl conservation, be implemented. We fully support the land use allocation goals and the Standards and Guidelines for management under the NWFP (USDA and USDI 1994) as informed by the recommendations of the Revised Recovery Plan. Some general considerations for managing the threats to the essential physical or biological features for the northern spotted owl are discussed in theSpecial Management Considerations or ProtectionsandDeterminations of Adverse Effects and Application of the “Adverse Modification” Standardsections of this document, below, as well as in the Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (USFWS 2011, pp. III-11 to III-39).

Forest Management Activities in Northern Spotted Owl Critical Habitat

As stated above, many areas of critical habitat do not require active management, and active forest management within such areas could negatively impact northern spotted owls. We are not encouraging land managers to consider active management in areas of high-quality owl habitat or occupied owl sites; rather, we encourage management actions that will maintain and restore ecological function where appropriate. In some areas, forest stands are not on a trajectory to develop into high-value habitat, ecological processes have been disrupted by human actions, or projected climate change is expected to further disrupt or degrade desired forest conditions. In these areas, land managers may choose to implement active management, as recommended in the Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (USFWS 2011), to improve ecological health and development of forest conditions more favorable to northern spotted owls and other biodiversity. For example, LSRs are to be managed to protect and enhance old-growth forest conditions (defined in the Revised Recovery Plan as forests that have accumulated specific characteristics related to tree size, canopy structure, snags, and woody debris and plant associations). According to the NWFP Standards and Guidelines (USDA and USDI 1994), no programmed timber harvest is allowed inside the reserves. However, thinning or other silvicultural treatments inside these reserves may occur in younger stands if the treatments are beneficial to the creation and maintenance of late-successional forest conditions. On the east of the Cascades and in Oregon and California Klamath Provinces, additional management activities may be considered both within and outside reserves to reduce risks of large-scale disturbance (NWFP Standards and Guidelines, p. C-12—C-13).

We also recognize that ecological restoration is not the management goal on all NWFP land use allocations (e.g.,matrix) within designated critical habitat, and we provide a discussion of options land managers could consider to tailor traditional forest management activities on these lands to consistent with conservation of current and future northern spotted owl habitat (see,e.g.,Gustafssonet al.2012, entire; Franklinet al.2007, entire; Kuuluvainen and Grenfell 2012, entire; North and Keeton 2008; Long 2009, entire; Lindenmayeret al.2012; entire). Our discussion of potential management considerationsfor the northern spotted owl are intended to be fully compatible with the objectives and Standards and Guidelines of the NWFP as informed by the conservation guidelines presented in the 2011 Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (USFWS 2011) to provide a means whereby the ecosystems on which northern spotted owls depend will be conserved.

Mimicking natural disturbance regimes, such as fire, is an important strategy in North American forest management (Seymour and Hunter 1999, p. 56; Long 2009, p. 1868; Gustafssonet al.2012, p. 635; Kuuluvainen and Grenfell 2012, entire). This change is occurring in response to: (1) The simplification of forests in terms of structure, age-class diversity, and species composition as a result of management for timber production, and (2) a recognition of fundamental changes in ecosystem function and processes due to land management practices, especially fire and successional patterns (Franklinet al.2002, pp. 402-408; Hessburget al.2005, pp. 134-135; Dreveret al.2006, p. 2291). Although human disturbance is unlikely to precisely mimic natural forest disturbance, it can be used to better maintain the resilience of landscapes and wildlife populations to respond to natural disturbance and climate change (Lindenmayeret al.2008, p. 87). In general, prescriptions (e.g., vegetation management, prescribed fire, etc.) that apply ecological forestry principles to address the restoration and conservation of broader ecological processes in areas where this is needed, while minimizing impacts to structurally diverse or mature and old forest that does not require such management can be compatible with maintaining the critical habitat's essential features in the long term at the landscape scale (USFWS 2011, p. III-14). The Service has recently consulted on these types of management actions in occupied northern spotted owl habitat on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands.

Specifically prescribing such management is beyond the scope or purpose of this document, and should instead be developed by the appropriate land management agency at the appropriate land management scale (e.g., National Forest or Bureau of Land Management District) (USDA 2010, entire; Fontaine and Kennedy 2012, p. 1559; Gustafssonet al.2012, pp. 639-641, Daviset al.2012, entire) through the land managing agencies' planning processes and with technical assistance from the Service, as appropriate. Furthermore, we encourage an active adaptive forest management approach, should agencies choose to implement ecological forestry practices, as we continue to learn from continuing research on these methods (seeResearch and Adaptive Management,below).

Some general considerations for managing for the conservation of essential physical or biological features within northern spotted owl critical habitat are discussed in more detail in theSpecial Management Considerations or ProtectionsandDeterminations of Adverse Effects and Application of the “Adverse Modification” Standardsections of this document, below. In sum, vegetation and fuels management in dry and mixed-dry forests may be appropriate both within and outside designated critical habitat where the goal of such treatment is to conserve natural ecological processes or restore them (including fire) where they have been modified or suppressed (Allenet al.2002, pp. 1429-1430; Spieset al.2006, pp. 358-361; Fielderet al.2007, entire; Pratheret al.2008, entire; Lindenmayeret al.2009, p. 274; Tidwell 2011, entire; Stephenset al.2009, pp. 316-318; Stephenset al.2012a, p. 13; Stephenset al.2012b, pp. 557-558; Franklinet al.2008, p. 46; Milleret al.2009, pp. 28-30; Fuleet al.2012, pp. 75-76). These types of management are encouraged in the NWFP (USDA and USDI 1994, p. C-13). Likewise, in some moist and mixed forests, management of northern spotted owl critical habitat should be compatible with broader ecological goals, such as the retention of high-quality older forest, the continued treatment of young or homogenous forest plantations to enhance structural diversity, heterogeneity and late-successional forest conditions, and the conservation or restoration of complex early-seral forest habitat, where appropriate (Spieset al.2007b, pp. 57-63; Bettset al.2010, pp. 2117, 2126-2127; Swansonet al.2011, entire).

In general, actions that promote ecological restoration and those that apply ecological forestry principles at appropriate scales as described above and in the Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (USFWS 2011, pp. III-11 to III-41) may be, in the right circumstances, consistent with the conservation of the northern spotted owl and the management of its critical habitat. However, we emphasize that this rule does not take any action or adopt any policy, plan or program in relation to active forest management. The discussion is provided only for consideration by Federal, State, local and private land managers, as well as the public, as they make decisions on the management of forest land under their jurisdictions and through their normal processes.

Research and Adaptive Management

The Service supports the goals of maintaining and restoring ecological function and development of future northern spotted owl habitat. We encourage land managers to consider a stronger focus on ecological forestry in areas where commercial harvest and restoration are planned. We recognize the need to balance both the conservation of current owl sites and the development of future owl habitat. However, a better understanding of how ecological forestry approaches affect owls and their prey is needed. Studies have shown negative effects of commercial thinning and other conventional forestry practices on both northern spotted owls (Forsmanet al.1984, pp. 16-17; Meimanet al.2003, p. 1261) and their prey (Waterset al.1994, p. 1516; Luomaet al.2003, pp. 343-373; Wilson 2010, entire).This need was recognized in Recovery Action 11 of the Revised Recovery Plan, which states “When vegetation management treatments are proposed to restore or enhance habitat for northern spotted owls (e.g., thinnings, restoration projects, prescribed fire, etc.), consider designing and conducting experiments to better understand how these different actions influence the development of northern spotted owl habitat, northern spotted owl prey abundance and distribution, and northern spotted owl demographic performance at local and regional scales.” Furthermore, the recovery strategy outlined in the Revised Recovery Plan (USFWS 2011) identifies monitoring and research, as well as active adaptive forest management, as important steps in achieving recovery goals.

Given these concerns, and recognizing that appropriate management actions will vary depending upon site-specific conditions, we provide the following suggestions regarding active forest management for consideration by land managers within critical habitat as consistent with the recommendations of the Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl:

1. Focus active management in younger forest, lower quality owl habitat, or where ecological conditions are most departed from the natural or desired range of variability.

2. In moist forests on Federal lands, follow NWFP guidelines as informed by the Revised Recovery Plan and focus on areas outside of LSRs (i.e., matrix). In dry forests, follow NWFP guidelines and focus on lands in or outside of reservesthat are most “at-risk” of experiencing uncharacteristic disturbance and where the landscape management goal is to restore more natural or resilient forest ecosystems (see,e.g.,Daviset al.2012, entire; Franklinet al.2008, p. 46).

3. Avoid or minimize activities in active northern spotted owl territories (or the high-quality habitat within these territories).

4. Ensure transparency of process so the public can see what is being done, where it is done, what the goal of the action is, and how well the action leads to the desired goal.

5. Practice active adaptive forest management by incorporating new information and learning into future actions to make them more effective, focusing on how these actions affect northern spotted owls and their prey.

Towards this objective of learning critical new scientific insights from research and adaptive management, we especially encourage research and active adaptive forest management on the seven Forest Service Experimental Forests (H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, Pringle Falls Experimental Forest, South Umpqua Experimental Forest, and Cascades Head Experimental Forest in Oregon; Wind River Experimental Forest and Entiat Experimental Forest in Washington; and Yurok Redwood Experimental Forest in California) within designated northern spotted owl critical habitat. We acknowledge the specific value and contributions of research done within experimental forests in furtherance of the research and active adaptive forest management objectives in the Revised Recovery Plan. These Experimental Forests have four principal scientific advantages that support the specific kinds of research needed to better understand how management affects and potentially enhances northern spotted owl habitat:

(1) These sites are intended for and enabled to conduct manipulative research to test forest management strategies in a rigorous scientific manner;

(2) They have long-term baseline datasets that enable detailed climate/environmental change assessments;

(3) The sites represent a diversity of forest types within the range of northern spotted owl; and

(4) Experimental forests have been the subject of intensive, long-term study that can serve as a backdrop for new research.

Essential research and active adaptive forest management questions, detailed in the Revised Recovery Plan, that could be conducted on Experimental Forests include (but are not limited to):

(a) What vegetation management treatments best accelerate the development of forest structure associated with northern spotted owl habitat functions while maintaining or restoring natural disturbance and provide greater ecosystem resiliency?

(b) What are the effects of wildland and prescribed fire on the structural elements of northern spotted owl habitat?

(c) Can strategically-placed restoration treatments be used to reduce the risk of northern spotted owl habitat being burned by high severity fire within dry forest ecosystems?

(d) What are the effects of epidemic forest insect outbreaks on northern spotted owl occupancy and habitat use immediately following the event and at specified time periods after treatment?

Sound scientific information represents a vital component of our path to recovery for the northern spotted owl (and almost all threatened or endangered species). We believe it would be counterproductive to inhibit or curtail research that is designed to benefit the northern spotted owl and the ecosystem in which it is found, and therefore support research activities within experimental forests.

The Biology and Ecology of the Northern Spotted Owl Physical Description and Taxonomy

The northern spotted owl is a medium-sized owl and the largest of the three subspecies of northern spotted owls currently recognized by the American Ornithologists' Union (Gutiérrezet al.1995, p. 2). It is dark brown with a barred tail and white spots on the head and breast, and has dark brown eyes that are surrounded by prominent facial disks. The taxonomic separation of these three subspecies is supported by numerous factors (reviewed in Courtneyet al.2004, pp. 3-3 to 3-31), including genetic (Barrowclough and Gutiérrez 1990, p. 739; Barrowcloughet al.1999, p. 922; Haiget al.2004, p. 1353; Barrowcloughet al.2005, p. 1113), morphological (Gutiérrezet al.1995, pp. 2 to 3), behavioral (Van Gelder 2003, p. 30), and biogeographical characteristics (Barrowcloughet al.1999, p. 928).

Distribution and Habitat

The current range of the northern spotted owl extends from southwest British Columbia through the Cascade Mountains, coastal ranges, and intervening forested lands in Washington, Oregon, and California, as far south as Marin County, California. The subspecies is listed as a threatened species under the Act throughout its range (55 FR 26114; June 26, 1990). Within the United States, the northern spotted owl ranges across 12 ecological regions, based on recognized landscape subdivisions exhibiting different physical and environmental features, often referred to as “physiographic provinces” (Franklin and Dyrness 1988, pp. 5-26; Thomaset al.1990, p. 61; USDA and USDI 1994, p. A-3). These include the Olympic Peninsula, Western Washington Lowlands, Western Washington Cascades, Eastern Washington Cascades, Oregon Coast Ranges, Western Oregon Cascades, Willamette Valley, Eastern Oregon Cascades, Oregon Klamath, California Klamath, California Coast Ranges, and California Cascades Provinces (based on USDA and USDI 1994, p. A-3). Very few northern spotted owls are found in British Columbia, in the Western Washington Lowlands or Willamette Valley; therefore, the subspecies is restricted primarily to 10 of the 12 provinces within its range.

For the purposes of developing this rule, and based on Appendix C of the Revised Recovery Plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (USFWS 2011, pp. C-7 to C-13), we have divided the range of the northern spotted owl into 11 different regions. We used these 11 regions in the habitat modeling that informed this revised designation of critical habitat. The regions used here are more “owl specific” than the physiographic provinces used in the past. In addition to regional patterns of climate, topography, and forest communities, which the physiographic provinces also considered, the 11 regions are based on specific patterns of northern spotted owl habitat relationships and prey base relationships across the range of the species. The 11 regions include the North Coast Olympics; West Cascades North; West Cascades Central; West Cascades South; East Cascades North; East Cascades South; Oregon Coast; Klamath West; Klamath East; Redwood Coast; and Inner California Coast Ranges. We additionally grouped these 11 regions into 4 broad ecological zones (West Cascades/Coast Ranges of Oregon and Washington; East Cascades; Redwood; and Klamath and Northern California Interior Coast Ranges). A map of the 11 regions used for the purposes of habitat modeling, as well as the 4 ecological zones, is provided in Figure 1 of this document. We used these 11 regions as the organizing units for our designation of critical habitat, and the 4 ecological zones for the identification of region-specific primary constituentelements (PCEs) for the northern spotted owl.

Northern spotted owls generally rely on older forested habitats because such forests contain the structures and characteristics required for nesting, roosting, and foraging, and dispersal. Forest characteristics associated with northern spotted owls usually develop with increasing forest age, but their occurrence may vary by location, past forest practices, and stand type, history, and condition. Although northern spotted owl habitat is variable over its range, some general attributes are common to the owl's life-history requirements throughout its range. To support northern spotted owl reproduction, a home range requires appropriate amounts of nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat arrayed so that nesting pairs can survive, obtain resources, and breed successfully. In northern parts of the range where nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat have similar attributes, nesting is generally associated with late-seral or old-growth forest in the core area (Swindleet al.1999, p. 1216). In some southern portions of the range, northern spotted owl survival is positively associated with the area of old forest habitat in the core, but reproductive output is positively associated with amount of edge between older forest and other habitat types in the home range (Franklinet al.2000, pp. 573, 579). This pattern suggests that where dusky-footed woodrats (Neotoma fuscipes) are the primary prey species, core areas that have nesting habitat stands interspersed with varied types of foraging habitat may be optimal for northern spotted owl survival and reproduction. Both the amount and spatial distribution of nesting, roosting, foraging, and dispersal habitat influence reproductive success and long-term population viability of northern spotted owls.

Population growth can occur only if there is adequate habitat in an appropriate configuration to allow for the dispersal of owls across the landscape. This includes support of dispersing juveniles, as well as nonresident subadults and adults that have not yet recruited into the breeding population. The survivorship of northern spotted owls is likely greatest when dispersal habitat most closely resembles nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat, but owls may use other types of habitat for dispersal on a short-term basis. Dispersal habitat, at a minimum, consists of stands with adequate tree size and canopy cover to provide protection from avian predators and at least minimal foraging opportunities (57 FR 1805, January 15, 1992). In this rule, we consider canopy cover as a vertical measurement of the amount of canopy that would cover the ground.

The three essential functions served by habitat within the home range of a northern spotted owl are:

(1)Nesting.Nesting habitat is essential to provide structural features for nesting, protection from adverse weather conditions, and cover to reduce predation risks. Habitat requirements for nesting and roosting are nearly identical. However, nesting habitat is specifically associated with a high incidence of large trees with various deformities (large cavities, broken tops, mistletoe (Arceuthobiumspp.) infections, and other evidence of decadence) or large snags suitable for nest placement. Additional features that support nesting and roosting typically include a moderate to high canopy cover; a multilayered, multispecies canopy with large overstory trees; large accumulations of fallen trees and other woody debris on the ground; and sufficient open space below the canopy for northern spotted owls to fly (Thomaset al.1990, p. 164). Forested stands with high canopy cover also provide thermal cover (Weatherset al.2001, p. 686) and protection from predators. Patches of nesting habitat, in combination with roosting habitat, must be sufficiently large and contiguous to maintain northern spotted owl core areas and home ranges, and must be proximate to foraging habitat. Ideally, nesting habitat also functions as roosting, foraging, and dispersal habita