Fuel treatments to save an endangered species

The case of the Mount Graham red squirrel seems to be another example of where everyone agrees that fuel treatments make sense.  According to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, loss of habitat to fire is the primary threat to this species.  The draft recovery plan was revised in 2011 largely due to unanticipated increases in the fire threat.  It describes management occurring on the Coronado National Forest:

The Pinaleño Ecosystem Management (PEM) demonstration project, implemented from 2000
through 2008, is a large project in the mixed conifer zone of the Pinaleños. The PEM project
involved thinning, piling, burning, and sometimes broadcast burning in an area occupied by the
Mount Graham red squirrel, northern goshawk, Mexican spotted owl, and numerous USFS
Sensitive Species.

Currently (2011), the Coronado National Forest has also proposed a larger fuel reduction and forest restoration project called the Pinaleño Ecosystem Restoration Project (PERP). This project is designed to help reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire in much of the remaining mixed
conifer zone, and will begin to set the forest on a trajectory that will allow a low-intensity fire
cycle. Large-diameter trees, snags, and logs of all canopy species will be retained, while select
smaller-diameter under- and mid-story trees will be removed to achieve desired forest conditions
(considering species composition, life form structure, and landscape matrix of age classes). The
mixed conifer forest currently has the largest block of remaining squirrel habitat, and monitoring
of impacts to the red squirrel and its habitat is incorporated into the project’s design. This
project is currently undergoing formal consultation, and will take a decade or more to complete.
The success of this project in reducing the threat of stand-replacing wildfire, while having
minimal short-term impact on the Mount Graham red squirrel, will be key to setting the stage for
recovery of the species.

The project was ongoing in 2015, and there was apparently no litigation.  (The Center for Biological Diversity has been active in challenging the main human threat – astronomers.)  The key seems to be the mitigation measures that led to the FWS concluding there would be “minimal short-term impact” (and the squirrel’s limited range of around 12,000 acres probably helps).  How then to interpret this statement in a story about a fire there this summer?

“Until they do something with the Endangered Species Act, we’re going to continue to have these (fires) because they don’t let them thin the mountain up manually because of the squirrel,” Weech said.

3 Comments

  1. People often wrongly blame the ESA for all sorts of problems. The way I see it, the management guidelines and policies sometimes seem too rigid, especially regarding nesting habitats for owls and goshawks. There needs to be some flexibility to address the risk of complete loss of a PAC, which would, indeed, be “catastrophic”. Any sort of ‘replacement habitat’ will be inferior to an older stand.

  2. Logging habitat to save it from fire is complicated. Generally speaking, if the species prefers low density forests, there may be benefits, because logging dense forest for fuel reduction also arguably enhances habitat.

    However, if the species prefers dense/complex forest habitat, logging to reduce fuels is not likely to benefit the species. This is because the probability of habitat degradation from logging+fire is greater than the probability of habitat degradation from fire alone.

    To justify such fuel reduction logging in dense forest habitat on ecological grounds requires several findings: (1) that wildfire is highly likely to occur at the site of the treatment, (2) that if fire does occur it is likely to be a severe stand-replacing event, and (3) that wildlife associated with dense forests are more likely to be harmed and imperiled by wildfire than by logging at a scale necessary to reduce fire hazard. Available evidence does not support any of these findings, which raises serious questions about the need for and efficacy of logging to reduce fuels.

    In spite of what we often hear, forests are not at imminent risk of destruction by wildfire. Fire return intervals remain relatively long, due to both natural factors and active fire suppression policies. Wildfire severity also remains moderate. Most wildfires are NOT stand replacing. Most fires are in fact low and moderate severity.

    The location, timing, and severity of future fire events cannot be predicted making it difficult to determine which forests will benefit from treatment – consequently fuel treatments must be extensive and many stands will be treated unnecessarily, thus incurring all the costs of fuel logging, but receiving none of the beneficial effects on fire behavior.

    • Your opinions are not verified in the Yosemite area. Your opinions leave out many important issues, discount facts and actual conditions that are currently causing the increased intensities, rates of spread and impacts on soils, watersheds and……… humans.

      I have actual experience with ‘logging’ in an owl PAC. That particular cutting unit had a prescription that cut only trees smaller that 15.0 inches in diameter, to enhance and protect the old growth component, in that unit. AND, of course, there was no old growth harvesting in all 5000 acres of the entire project.

      Some people simply do not care about old growth habitats, when they are threatened by rampaging wildfires. They prefer “Whatever Happens”, even in the case of arson fires. (See Rim and King Fires) Of course, such fires cannot be “Natural and Beneficial”, despite what the apparently blind ‘deep blue’ ecologists say.

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