California Fish and Game Commission to weigh in on spotted owl, Delta bass

A state commission could decide later this month whether to officially protect the northern spotted owl under the California Endangered Species Act.
A state commission could decide later this month whether to officially protect the northern spotted owl under the California Endangered Species Act. Associated Press file

Should the northern spotted owl – whose federal conservation status in the 1990s hit the state’s timber industry – receive even more protection under the state’s Endangered Species Act?

And if anglers are allowed to take more non-native bass from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, will more endangered fish survive?

The California Fish and Game Commission will consider those two questions later this month.

The commissioners will consider conflicting testimony on Aug. 25 in Folsom from environmental groups and the timber industry on whether they should grant state endangered species protections for the northern spotted owl.

In the 1990s, the federal government protected the owl under the Endangered Species Act, leading to logging reductions in Western states’ old-growth forests.

Rob DiPerna of the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center said the federal protections haven’t stopped the owls’ numbers from continuing to decline in the face of habitat loss and the arrival of non-native barred owls that compete with the spotted owls. He said it’s time for the state to step in to ensure the species comes back from the brink of extinction.

“If we don’t take a lot more aggressive, immediate conservation actions, we’re going to lose the species in California and everywhere else in its range,” DiPerna said.

George Gentry, vice president of regulatory affairs for the California Forestry Association, said that the federal protections were working and the northern spotted owls were recovering – until barred owls began aggressively expanding into their range. He said the commissioners should focus on the harms caused by barred owls rather than on land-use policy.

“If we waste time with a whole bunch of bureaucratic processes, and not focus on this barred owl situation, we may lose the northern spotted owl,” he said.

In a report to the commission, state wildlife officials recommend listing the species as threatened. They cited barred owls, climate change, destructive wildfires, marijuana farming and habitat loss from timber harvests as threats to the species.

In an issue that promises to be just as controversial, the commissioners also will consider what role non-native striped and black bass – popular game fish – play in the declining Delta ecosystem.

For years, powerful farming interests have blamed the bass for eating endangered Delta smelt and chinook salmon. As the native fish have declined, regulators have placed restrictions on Delta water being pumped to farmers’ crops.

In 2008, a Kern County agricultural group sued California fisheries officials to pressure them to remove striped bass from sport-fishing protections.

As part of a settlement, state wildlife officials asked the commission, which sets sport-fishing regulations, to let anglers catch and keep more striped bass.

In 2012, the commission rejected the proposal on a 4-0 vote, after hearing opposition from sport-fishing groups and fisheries officials. They argued that degraded habitat, not well-established predators, is the root problem for the declines in native fish. Striped bass were first introduced to California in the late 1800s.

Now with a group of new commissioners – four of five of them have been appointed since 2015 – a coalition of water agencies, the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Chamber of Commerce have petitioned the board to allow anglers to keep more of the non-native fish they catch to thin their numbers.

Fish and Game Commission

The commission will discuss the non-native bass and spotted owl petitions on Aug. 25 at the Lake Natoma Inn Hotel & Conference Center at 702 Gold Lake Drive in Folsom. The meeting begins at 8:30 a.m.