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A northern spotted owl is shown at the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program (NSOBP) near Hope, B.C.HO/The Canadian Press

The federal Environment Minister has determined the northern spotted owl is facing imminent threats to its survival, setting the stage for an emergency order that could stem a decades-long decline.

The determination, outlined in a Feb. 15 letter to environmental law group Ecojustice, follows a petition Ecojustice submitted last year. It called on the federal government to recommend an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) to protect owls and their habitat.

Ecojustice submitted the petition on behalf of the Wilderness Committee, which has long campaigned to protect the birds and their habitat in old-growth forests of southern British Columbia.

The environmental groups welcomed the development, but noted an emergency order requires cabinet approval and the owls are in dire shape, with only three – two from a breeding program – known to be in the wild in B.C. A fourth is recovering after it was injured, possibly by a train.

“We’re hopeful that cabinet is going to do the right thing and protect the habitat necessary for this incredibly important species to survive and recover,” Ecojustice lawyer Rachel Gutman said on Thursday.

The northern spotted owl – Strix occidentalis caurina, commonly the spotted owl – is an endangered species under SARA.

A spotted owl recovery strategy was announced in 2006, when there were fewer than two dozen spotted owls left in the wild, but that strategy did not identify critical habitat, Ecojustice said in its 2022 petition.

In March, 2021, in response to a petition for an emergency order by the Wilderness Committee, the B.C. government put in place temporary one-year logging deferrals for the Spuzzum and Utzlius watersheds, which are home to the last remaining wild northern spotted owls in Canada, Ecojustice said in its 2022 petition. In March, 2022, those deferrals were renewed for another one-year period; however, no permanent protection of these watersheds is in place, the petition said.

In its petition, Ecojustice said it had identified 452 approved or pending cutblocks – areas for commercial logging – in owl habitat and asked the federal government to intervene.

In his assessment, described in the Feb. 15 letter to Ecojustice, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault determined that any resumption of logging activities in the Spuzzum Creek and Utzlius Creek watersheds posed an imminent threat to the species and that complete or partial logging of another 2,500 hectares, spread out over a patchwork of spotted owl habitat, would make it difficult for the species to recover.

“Although this area is relatively small compared with the overall size of Spotted Owl habitat in B.C., the impact of the loss of this habitat on the recovery of the species extends beyond the specific area where harvesting occurs,” the federal letter said.

The Spuzzum First Nation, with traditional territory that includes old-growth forests and owl habitat, welcomed the minister’s opinion and the potential emergency order.

“It is exciting for our nation to know that it was more than just a prescribed drainage area that is being protected – that they are looking outside of that to include hopefully the whole old-growth corridor,” Spuzzum Chief James Hobart said on Thursday.

“Because the Spotted Owls don’t adhere to maps that say drainage – they adhere to an old-growth corridor,” he added.

In an e-mailed response to a question about previous emergency orders, government spokesperson Bruce Cheadle said the federal government has issued emergency orders in 2013, for the protection of the greater sage grouse in Alberta and Saskatchewan; in 2016, to protect the western chorus frog in La Prairie, Que.; and in 2021, in Longueuil, Que., again for the western chorus frog. All of those orders remain in force.

The provincial government did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.