Conservationists said the claim was not supported by the agency’s own evidence. In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the owl in the north should indeed be classified as endangered and not threatened. However, the agency said it will not take any action as it has “higher priority actions”.

Now the government is taking away the critical protection, say scientists.

Northern spotted owls live in forests with dense, multi-layered canopies and other features that take 150 to 200 years to develop, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. They usually mate for life and breed relatively slowly. Threatened by deforestation and land conversion, they came under protection in 1990 after a fierce political struggle, but their number has continued to fall by an average of 4 percent per year, according to the service.

While the preserved habitat “provides some protection,” the service’s Oregon office wrote on its website, “previous trends suggest that much of the remaining unprotected habitat could disappear in 10-30 years.” To make matters worse, the barred owl from the eastern United States has presented a new challenge: it enters its habitat and competes for the same resources. Forest fires, exacerbated by climate change, pose a growing threat.

The lumber industry argues that the federal government has protected millions of acres of forest that are not occupied by the owls. In April, the American Forest Resource Council, a regional industry group pushing for public deforestation, announced that it had reached an agreement with the service to begin a re-evaluation of the owl’s protected habitat. In August, after a “review of the best scientific and commercial information available,” the service proposed reducing the reserve by approximately 205,000 acres.

The forest group hailed the much steeper cut announced on Wednesday, which opens more than three million acres.

“This rule will better align the critical northern owl habitat with actual habitat, federal law and modern forestry science when unprecedented and severe forest fires threaten both owls and people from Northern California to Washington state,” said Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council said in a statement.