Another Threat To Spotted Owls: Fire

That fire is a threat to the NSO in not news to us here at NCFP. This article, “Another Threat To Spotted Owls: Fire,” from Jefferson Public Radio (Southern Oregon), looks at the issue on the east side of the Cascades.

“Since 2003, wildfires have burned up to 30,000 acres of habitat in the Deschutes National Forest, which has destroyed or fragmented much of the area’s best spotted owl habitat…. The Sisters Ranger District lost 21 breeding pairs after the fires. After the wildfires of 2014, rangers couldn’t find any.”

Loss of habitat due to timber harvesting is still a threat, “but it’s not as great a threat as habitat loss due to fire and things like the barred owl,” says Laurie Turner, a forest wildlife biologist for the Deschutes National Forest.

As far as I know, most of the harvesting on the Deschutes these days is aimed at reducing the threat of large, intense fires and thus stemming the loss of owl habitat.

On the other hand, Chad Hanson claims elsewhere that cutting snags on the Rim Fire in the western Sierras will harm “snag forests,” which are dandy owl habitat: “…current research shows that while spotted owls select unburned or low/moderate-intensity fire areas for nesting and roosting habitat, they preferentially select unlogged high-intensity fire areas for their foraging habitat. This is because these high-intensity fire areas, which create ecologically-vital “snag forest habitat” (also known as “complex early seral forest”), have an abundance of habitat structures, such as snags, downed logs, native shrub patches, and areas of dense natural conifer regeneration, that provide excellent habitat for the small mammal prey species upon which spotted owls depend.”

Could it be that owls, either CSO or NSO, react differently to fire, depending on location?


5 thoughts on “Another Threat To Spotted Owls: Fire”

  1. The owl study does not factor in distance to their nesting habitat. Of course, an owl will roost closer to its nesting habitat, if that burned forest has any prey. Prey just doesn’t magically arise from thickly-wooded burned forests. There simply isn’t much prey in those forests before the fire burned. The study also doesn’t address how successful those birds are in such post-fire habitats. Presence does not equal success.

    People like Chad Hanson also choose to believe that burned nesting habitat is just as good as healthy nesting habitat. He also says that “salvage logging is a death sentence for spotted owls”. Rhetoric, with a capital R! If that were true, California Spotted Owls would be dead and gone. Ironically, the CASPO gets more “protections” than its northern listed relative, the NSO. 20″+ dbh trees are currently “sacred” and off limits to logging. In some areas, trees over 12″ dbh are off limits. All this, for an unlisted owl.

  2. Fire does degrade some spotted owl habitat every year, but logging is still the greatest threat to the bird. Mature forest habitat, at least on federal lands, is being recruited (through regrowth) far faster than it is being lost to fire. However, the combination of logging plus fire represents a continuing threat to the owl.

    Also, importantly, logging does not make sense as a means to reduce risks to spotted owl habitat, because fuel = habitat, and no one can predict when and where fire will occur, so fuel reduction logging will treat many areas unnecessarily and degrade far more acres than will burn during the period that fuel treatments are effective.

    See for example:

    The Wildlife Society 2010. Peer Review of the Draft Revised Recovery Plan for Northern Spotted Owl. November 15, 2010.

    Society for Conservation Biology, The Wildlife Society, American Ornithologists Union. 4-2-2012 letter to Secretary of Interior Salazar.

    Baker W. [undated] Fire Risk and Northern Spotted Owl Recovery in Dry Forests.

    • It is the actual nests that are at-risk. Owls are notoriously lazy nest builders, and I am sure that some finish their lives without successful breeding, after their nests burn. Remember, they need MULTIPLE nests to have yearly offspring. The Rim and King Fires burned especially hot in that “protected” nesting habitat. AND, here in California, it is easy to guess where large fires will burn in the next 40 years, especially in CASPO nesting habitats.

      • Larry, If fuel treatments are only effective for 5-15 years, it’s not very helpful to “guess where large fires will burn in the next 40 years.” There is a probabilistic discrepancy that the agencies rarely account for when touting the value of fuel treatments.

        • In the area of the Rim Fire and Yosemite, there are places that burn every 8-12 years, according to tree rings. Fuels treatments must be maintained, just like roads, libraries, hospitals, dams, etc. Then, add in the decades of fire suppression, it’s not hard to tell which forests will burn well, especially with the stark reality of ever-increasing human-caused ignitions finding those “excellent burning conditions”. Preservationists continue to ignore several key issues associated with high intensity wildfires, here in California. Many of those wildfires issues are the same, in parts of the northwest. Our forests often need fuelS treatments. Plural, when they are young. Such projects are not solely designed to reduce fuels. The “Purpose and Need” usually has several benefits spelled out.


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