SAN FRANCISCO— New data from California’s Rim fire area shows there are at least 37 occupied owl territories in burned forest that the U.S. Forest Service wants to substantially cut as part of a post-fire logging project. Government surveys conducted this spring and summer in the Stanislaus National Forest, where last year’s Rim fire burned, found 33 owl pairs as well as six single owls. The majority are in the area where the agency has proposed to cut more than 600 million board feet of timber.
In a letter today the Wild Nature Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project told the Forest Service that the owl detection rates in the Rim fire area indicate that spotted owls are using burned forest at rates that are significantly greater than their use of unburned forests in the Sierras.
“I’m not surprised that so many spotted owls are living in the Rim fire area,” said Monica Bond, principal scientist for the Wild Nature Institute. “Recent science and survey results like those from the Rim fire are repudiating the old, outdated assumption that fire is bad for owls. Logging has always been the real danger to spotted owls, not fire.”
Forest Service managers have long assumed that fire is the most prominent threat to spotted owls, but current scientific evidence shows these rare birds of prey not only use severely burned forests but prefer it when searching for food.
Burned forests that are adjacent or near to owl sites — such as nests or roosting areas — can be critical to owl survival; published literature has determined that in post-fire landscapes such as the Rim fire area, salvage logging should be prohibited within about a mile of owl sites. The Rim fire logging project has not incorporated such protection for owls despite the exceptional number of owls in the area, and despite the recent published findings showing that spotted owls are in serious decline on Forest Service and private lands in the Sierras.
“The Rim fire area is teeming with wildlife that thrives in burned forests, including these spotted owls living right in the same forests the government wants to cut down,” said Justin Augustine with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the Forest Service heeds the new data and drastically changes its approach so these owls get the protections they need and deserve.”
Spotted owls are not the only forest animals that use burned areas. Species like woodpeckers, bluebirds, deer and bats flourish in post-fire forests. As explained in a recent scientific publication, intense fire in mature forest creates one of the most biologically diverse and ecologically important forest habitat types in the Sierras.
“If the Forest Service continues with its plans to log the Rim fire area, the many owls residing in the post-fire forest mosaic will be harmed,” said research ecologist Dr. Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project. “And let’s not forget that the Forest Service has a conflict of interest because it sells the burned trees to private commercial logging corporations and keeps the profits to enhance its budget.”
The Forest Service proposal in the Rim fire area is one of the largest industrial logging projects in the history of the national forest system. Much of the logging would be concentrated in occupied spotted owl territories. The Forest Service’s final decision on the project is expected to be released on Aug. 28.