“Spotted owl suffers more from logging than wildfire”

When I saw that headline, I had a hunch that Chad Hanson would be involved. The paper is here. 

The USFS aimed to salvage timber from 11K acres, about 11% of the 97K acres burned by the King Fire. One of the new paper’s authors, Monica Bond, wrote a commentary arguing against the salvage.  El Dorado forest supervisor Laurence Crabtree’s response is here.


Spotted owl suffers more from logging than wildfire — study

Scientists studying the California spotted owl are trying to figure out which calamity is worse for the rare birds: burning trees or cutting them down after a fire.

That’s the issue at the heart of competing studies in California, the most recent of which suggests post-fire logging — not severe fire — is the real threat to the spotted owl.

In a study published this week in the scientific journal Nature Conservation, research ecologists said they found that owl populations suffered after the so-called King Fire in 2014 in the Eldorado National Forest because of post-fire logging.

Furthermore, the authors said, previous research by scientists missed that point and blamed a loss of owls in some areas on the fire itself, even though those areas hadn’t been occupied by owls in the first place.

“Most studies of spotted owls and fires in California found little to no effect of fires on owl site occupancy, but the King Fire study results contradicted these. Now we have a better idea where the King Fire results came from — it was post-fire logging and pre-fire abandonment,” said Monica Bond, a wildlife biologist with the Wild Nature Institute and co-author of the study.

The researchers said they found that in fire-damaged sites that had owls prior to the fire, where less than 5 percent of the area was logged, 12 of 15 spotted owl sites were occupied after the fire.

In sites where 5 percent or more of the area was logged, two out of six owl sites were occupied, they said.

The most recent study, conducted by researchers critical of logging, adds to a debate with policy implications; Congress is weighing legislation to change forest management activities and speed the approval of logging operations in areas damaged by wildfire, which some lawmakers say will reduce chances of subsequent fire.

The owl, too, is under federal review, as the Forest Service pursues a conservation strategy to protect the population. California spotted owl numbers have declined in the past 20 years, according to the agency, due to threats to habitat and competition from the barred owl, which has invaded the spotted owl’s territory.

California spotted owl isn’t listed as endangered, but the authors of the study are leading an effort to have it listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The study’s lead author, Chad Hanson, is a research ecologist with the John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute, which opposes such legislation and is critical of logging on federal lands generally.

Recently burned forests — called snags for the dead trees left standing — are beneficial to spotted owls as hunting territory, Hanson said. Owls nest in deep woods and hunt in more open areas.

“We call this the bed-and-breakfast effect,” Hanson told E&E News.

In a news release, Hanson said of the study, “This is good news for declining California spotted owls because this is something that we can control — we can make policy decisions to stop post-fire logging operations in spotted owl habitat.”

A researcher whose work was questioned in the new study, Gavin Jones, took issue with some of the findings.

Jones, a graduate research assistant at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told E&E News that his studies showed without a doubt that high-severity fire negatively affected spotted owls.

Those findings from the King Fire were “entirely unambiguous,” Jones said.

Jones said he doesn’t rule out that post-fire logging could be detrimental to spotted owls and that research in that area has been limited.

And while Jones said he’s more of a scientist than a policy advocate, he added that campaigners for less logging sometimes take the view that all wildfire is good and all logging is bad — when the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Even severe wildfire is good in patches, Jones said.

“Is all severe fire good? We’ve found it’s not good,” Jones said. “I think there’s this basic problem of missing the nuance.”

Email: [email protected]

45 thoughts on ““Spotted owl suffers more from logging than wildfire””

  1. When I saw this study yesterday I had a hunch that someone on this blog would say something about Dr. Chad Hanson. So, congrats Steve! Once again, Dr. Hanson would mop up the floor in debate about these issues with each and every person on this blog who tries to say, or infer, disparaging things about him.

    P.S. Dr. Hanson and Dr. Lee have PhD’s. Gavin Jones has a Master’s degree. I only bring that up because if the situation were reversed some people who make hay out of it.

    • Matt, Hanson would be welcome here to participate in the discussion.

      For the sake of argument, I’ll stipulate that a salvaged area may not be as good for owls as an unsalvaged area. But leaving 89% of the burned area to the owls is a fairly good bargain for them.

      • The 11% is not randomly selected. It often represents places with more large trees having more economic value (and more habitat value). For example, they salvaged less than 5% of the Biscuit fire area but they targeted 26% of the area with large trees.

    • Matt toughting that someone has a PhD, after repeatedly ignoring true scientific facts (refer to the numerous court decisions) and pursuing a clearly stated agenda – stop commercial logging, is meant to do what? I actually would rather see your thoughts on the subject, even though I’m pretty certain they may not be aligned with mine.

    • Matthew

      There is a problem with your statement: “P.S. Dr. Hanson and Dr. Lee have PhD’s. Gavin Jones has a Master’s degree. I only bring that up because if the situation were reversed some people who make hay out of it.”

      The problem being that anyone following your comments over the years would have no trouble observing that you don’t even agree with PhD’s if they don’t align with your beliefs. So why don’t you set yourself up as a super board to asses all PhD graduates and assign a “Matthew Koehler Approved Doctorate”. I’m sure that you could include a provision to revoke said approval should they ever publish anything that you disapproved of at a later date.

      In addition, your repeated attempt at intimidation with this statement: “Once again, Dr. Hanson would mop up the floor in debate about these issues with each and every person on this blog who tries to say, or infer, disparaging things about him” is getting rather trite. Please try and use your vast knowledge as an English teacher to come up with a new and more interesting way to insult us.

    • Well.. I haven’t said disparaging things about him, but I doubt he could “mop up the floor” with me in a written format like this one (I noticed in the Missoula discussion that he set out framing it one way and no one had time to discuss different framings.. often that’s the key thing in advocacy science.) I just disagree and don’t disparage. In fact I would be willing to publicly engage in such a discussion. I think it’s really important for people to see the different sides of “science” and what studies do or do not show.

      • Well, I don’t doubt that Dr. Chad Hanson would “mop the floor” with you in a debate….but whatever.

        Also, for whatever it’s worth, according to an on-line dictionary:

        “What does it mean to mop the floor with someone?

        To mop the floor with is defined as to defeat an opponent or opponents in a spectacular victory where you are far more successful than the opponent. An example of mop the floor with is to beat someone 20-0 in a basketball game.”

        If Gil finds that “intimidating” so be it.

        • Matthew

          Remember the book “Winning Through Intimidation”? You are constantly trying to use “mop up the floor” in an attempt to “win” by suggesting that no one can out debate your king. Winning debates has nothing to do with science or the truth. It is all about chicanery and sophistry which only steers us away from the truth. Your overwhelming drive to “win” a short term discussion only shows your lack of desire to consider all opposing views in order to find the truth. for the long term good

  2. Trading rare nesting habitats for foraging habitats is very bad for owls (and goshawks). Snag thinning projects, not so much. The longterm recovery favors snag thinning, especially in areas of moderate to high-intensity burns, reducing the impacts of re-burns so common in the Sierra Nevada. Clearly, the ‘usual suspects’ are ignoring parts of the known facts, preferring a ‘Whatever Happens’ mindset. Sorry, Chad, we’re leaving you behind, to sit in the corner and think about your actions. Pretending that such fires are good for the majority of wildlife is just not a rational thought, and is not supported by the scientific consensus (as well as in the courts, these days). Keep flailing! It’s become entertaining.

    • Steve says “Matt, Hanson would be welcome here to participate in the discussion.”

      Then Larry Harrell responds with his typical stuff ^^^^ , which leaves no wonder why someone like Dr. Hanson wouldn’t waste his time with some of you folks.

  3. There are literally hundreds of thousands of acres of previously occupied habitat, that has been burned over the last decade. By now there should be ample evidence that the owls are recovering better in these areas. In fact the sites shouldn’t just be occupied but there should be reproduction. I didn’t see reference to occupation by a pair or a single. The other interesting thing is the lack of desire to band and track owls, which would actually allow us to see whether the sites are occupied by new owls or owls that were displaced in other areas. Another “here’s the info I want to support my agenda” study. Or maybe I just misread things again…….

      • My point is that we should have an actual comparison of facts, not guess’s (theory) or narrow studies. Track actual owls – banded, not just responses. Track actual occupied sites, not just previously occupied sites and current sites. Track actual reproduction from birth to 2 years. Study the areas outside of harvest plans, not just harvest areas – green and black. Track the identified owls in the burned unsalvaged areas for more than 2 years, compared to the owls in burned salvage areas, using equal burn intensity.
        What we have is “I have an agenda and here’s the proof to back it up……….. just don’t dig into the facts”. We used to get “Here’s a scientific study, what does it tell us? Let’s check our facts and try it from another angle.”

      • 2ndOutLaw

        So you really don’t want to see anymore evidence disproving the case that Hanson et. al. make that fires of any severity are good for anything at anytime.

  4. Given the lack of a significant sample size without any replication over other fire locations and regions (1), I find it hard to believe that any scientist would publish this as anything other than exploratory research to suggest the need for a statistically valid research design that could settle the issue by determining whether this was always true, true in isolated circumstances or a function of a vast array of site, regional, geological, weather and other variables.

    (1) Re: “The researchers said they found that in fire-damaged sites that had owls prior to the fire, where less than 5 percent of the area was logged, 12 of 15 spotted owl sites were occupied after the fire.

    In sites where 5 percent or more of the area was logged, two out of six owl sites were occupied, they said.”

    a) the significantly fewer samples taken in the >=5% logged sites than in <5% logged sites.
    b) the total sample size was only 21.
    c) the lack of any sound statistical research design including replication by region/landscape for pertinent parameters such as fire, geology, predominant forest species, degree of Barred Owl competition before and after, physical and spatial site diversity and other variables.

    • If I were the queen of Research, I would have a check off before you got funded for policy relevant research. You would have to have policy people articulate the policy question… in this case, how does salvage logging affect owls? First you would propose different mechanisms for how that would work. (no trees for owls to sit in.. or whatever). You would ground truth those mechanisms with field wildlife bios and folks like Larry. You would pick the key ones you think might work, and design a study that took the key parameters into question as Gil pointed out, so that you would answer the key questions raised and get statistically meaningful results. You would make sure that the researchers followed data integrity requirements and that the data and publications were freely available, including open reviews. Most importantly both policy “sides” would get to weigh in at each step. Without my Policy Relevant Research Rules (PR cubed), policy people would be free to declare any studies not of sufficient quality to be used in policy. It’s a high bar but if the policy is important so is the research.

      • Unfortunately, since the whole NSO project got started. My literature review efforts to date have shown me how the research has pretty much been a hodge podge of independent researchers, like those above, saying “hey, we gotta do something, let’s try this”. There has been no integrated research plan over all regions and spotted owl species that considers all of the pertinent variables that are obvious to even non-avian specialists. So we only have a bunch of “observations” that often contradict each other over different geography’s within spotted owl species as we do between spotted owl species. Often the health/abundance of forage species and its causation has been omitted from the research.

        In addition, no form of random sampling has been used and the use of calls to determine the presence of spotted owls definitely underestimates their presence when there is the possibility of barred owls being present. We have wasted a great deal of money and still don’t even know how many spotted owls there are. On the basis of shoddy science the NSO was declared endangered, regional/local economies were ruined, forest health allowed to be ruined and a much superior species in terms of long term survival considering constant environmental change is now being shot to “save the spotted owls”. Finally to show how ludicrous this all is, the results of legally shooting species for research purposes can not be implemented operationally if the research determines that killing barred owls is effective because that goes against a very sound law forbidding the killing of one species to save another. Which only demonstrates how poorly thought out the whole effort has been as a result of the lack of an integrated research plan.

        A more fundamental oversight is the need for a projection of stand types by age class which would demonstrate that sustainability wasn’t threatened by the preservation of old stands which would reduce the annual regeneration necessary to insure that there wouldn’t be a spotted owl extinguishing gap in pertinent forest types by age class at some time in the future. My literature search to date has found absolutely nothing hinting that such a critical study has been done. We need to insure that all of the hodge podge of research and resultant “hands off” forest policy won’t exterminate the very species that it is trying to save.

        • Gil- that’s so sad. It doesn’t have to be that way. Our country would be a very different place if they had said.. oh.. we want an atomic bomb. So we will fund random things that different people want to develop and hope that they all fit together to make something that works.

          I have to think that better coordination makes for better research that ultimately would work better for the policy purpose.. in this case, to promote the well-being of owls.

  5. I see the FS is already to discontinue updating their website due to lack of funding.
    Fire kills our forests. Take a drive, take a look. It is sad to see old growth forests all dead.

  6. Remember, “occupancy” means very, very little in the world of owls, and is a far cry from “reproduction”. If salvage logging had significant effects on owl survival, the species would be extinct, by now, due to decades of past practices. In truth, I doubt there are ANY suitable nesting habitats that are ‘unoccupied’, currently. The ‘usual suspects’ have only proven that they saw a bird near a snag.

  7. I thought that Crabtree’s op-ed was great.. I’m glad that they let him (or whomever) write it and that the Bee published it. I think that the FS needs to tell “their side of the story” more often than they do. Not sure why this doesn’t happen more.

  8. Part of the problem is the burden of proof, or status quo, while we wait for Gil’s and Sharon’s approved research. Most here seem to start with the idea that logging is good and must proceed until that’s proven wrong. Why shouldn’t the Forest Service first prove the benefits from its investment of our tax dollars? (And under NFMA we should be more interested in the ecological benefits than dollars.) I agree that the forest supervisor takes a shot at that):

    “Research indicates that the amount of forest in the King fire area where no trees survived is above the historic average and is related to fuel buildup and climate change. Taking a portion of this area to remove dead trees and do active reforestation to bring back mature trees more quickly will contribute to habitat diversity. Planting trees will also help maintain a sustainable reserve of trees for future wood products. Some of the salvage logging treatments are on strategic ridge tops and will help us manage future fire while others are adjacent to private property. The science community is saying we need to reintroduce more fire for ecosystem health. We can’t do that unless we can reasonably protect adjacent private property.”

    The thing is that a forest supervisor can’t just say this. It has to be based on a forest plan where the public has had a chance to debate what “habitat diversity” means and whether salvage logging would contribute to that, how much wood is need for “future wood products,” and which ridge tops and private property need protection and would benefit from salvage logging. If the current plan hasn’t dealt with this, then the burden should be on the Forest Service to prove all these points for every project (and that the project will NOT adversely affect spotted owls in the process of doing these other things).

  9. What many people ignore is that there are no lack of snags in today’s salvage projects, despite Hanson’s unfounded allegations of salvage clearcuts on USFS lands. Yes, they do clearcut on private timberlands but, the Forest Service has snag requirements.

    Some snags are left within the cutting units, expressly for wildlife. Ample snag patches are left within protected streamcourses, perfect for owls on the hunt. All snags are left within PACs, of all kinds. Large amounts of snags are left outside of cutting units but, still within the projects areas. Large amounts of snags are left, outside of the projects areas but, still within the footprint of the fire.

    Just how many snags do the owls need?!?!? Until that question is answered, we must “defer to Agency science”.

    • Salvage always results in a shortage of snags. All stand replacing disturbance, including both fire and regen logging remove the pool of green trees from which future snags are recruited. After fire, there are lots of snags, but that abundance hides a future shortage of snags, because those snags will fall long before the new stands is producing replacement snags.

      In Congressional testimony in July 2004, Jerry Franklin said:

      It is sometimes argued that following a stand-replacement fire in an old-growth forest that snags and logs are present in “excess” of the needs of the site, in terms of ecosystem recovery. In fact, the large pulse of dead wood created by the disturbance is the only significant input of woody debris that the site is going to get for the next 50 to 150 years—the ecosystem has to “live” off of this woody debris until the forest matures to the point where it has again produced the large trees that can become the source for new snags and logs (Maser et al. 1988).


      • And you are ignoring ‘multiple use’. Salvage logging is not a ‘do no harm’ situation. It is very important to get a new stand started as soon as possible, to outcompete the brush and bearclover, rather than keeping so many snags, only to fuel future re-burns. You cannot isolate a single cutting unit and expect to have the amount of snags that bird people want. There is no ‘magic number’. You must take it at ‘landscape scale’. Are there enough snags for owls, specifically, across the wider forest? Are the actions going to imperil the owls, as a species?

        Additionally, it sounds like the study compared protected areas versus salvaged areas. A better comparison is unsalvaged and unprotected lands versus salvaged lands. Otherwise, it’s apples versus oranges.

        And one more thing. Remember, this is a different species than the northern spotted owl, with different preferences and habitats. Obviously, you are going to see more owls in their burned-over nesting habitats than in salvaged parcels, which are already part of their forage areas.

      • 1) you don’t seem to understand that regen logging leaves significant overstory to provide a seed source a shelter for the regen. Think shelterwood/selection harvest-regeneration systems.

        2) Jerry has recanted some his past beliefs as his knowledge increased – unlike some others.

        3) Replacement debris & snags don’t need to be in the exact same place as the fire. Normal mortality and excessive mortality due to insects&/disease from overly dense stands and other stressors such as drought provide plenty of snags and other debris. Control burns can also meet these needs over a more dispersed pattern than from a large contiguous acreage of more severe burns.

        Forestry requires thinking both at the site & landscape level & through all stages of stand development from repro to mortality & so on through subsequent succession. Looking only at a window either temporarily or spatially is foolishness.

  10. Actually, I think the Forest Service has to tell us how many snags the owls need before a court would defer to that answer. And until they answer that question it would be hard to make the case that they are providing enough.

    • I suggest that there are plenty of snags on the 87% of the 257,314-acre Rim Fire that wasn’t salvaged. According to a 2014 LA Times article, the plan was to salvage “more than 15,000 acres of trees” plus an additional 17,706 acres of trees along non-public roads. I don’t know if that target was met.

      In any case, how long will these snags be useful to owls? Larry might tell us how many of them have fallen so far; few will remain by 2023. What’ll the owls do then?

      • Remember, about half of the non-hazard tree logging was proposed in old plantations from a 70’s wildfire. The Rim Fire is a perfect example of how there are ample snags to satisfy any snag-loving critters. The owls, especially, will be displaced by the loss of their nesting habitats. No one knows where they will end up, especially since owls are territorial. Some may just have to live out their lives with no more offspring. BTW, owls are notoriously lazy in building new nests. They also have to compete with goshawks for the same nesting areas, and even the same nests.

        Pine snags can stay up for many years but, snags, in general, don’t offer much security from predators. Yosemite has plenty of huge snags, and I guess we will see if the owls will benefit from them.

      • Virtually all forest plans rely on outdated and scientifically discredited snag guidelines. And the Forest Service admits as much in their NEPA documents. Wildlife needs more snags for a wider variety of life needs, and therefore more trees need to be retained in order to recruit those snags over the life of the stand.

        See Rose, C.L., Marcot, B.G., Mellen, T.K., Ohmann, J.L., Waddell, K.L., Lindely, D.L., and B. Schrieber. 2001. Decaying Wood in Pacific Northwest Forests: Concepts and Tools for Habitat Management, Chapter 24 in Wildlife-Habitat Relationships in Oregon and Washington (Johnson, D. H. and T. A. O’Neil. OSU Press. 2001) http://web.archive.org/web/20060708035905/http://www.nwhi.org/inc/data/GISdata/docs/chapter24.pdf

        • Remember, this issue will only be applied to the California spotted owls, as recent plaintiffs argue for. The BB Woodpecker is a different issue, with different guidelines. Modern salvage projects juggle many issues and are not required to cater to just one species, one set of values or one economic activity. Leaving 40 snags in a 20 acre cutting unit will not impact spotted owls. With a tiny fraction of wildfires being salvaged, these days, not every acre needs to support a bird.

          Yes, that’s right, people! Birds can fly to their food, just like they did before the fire!

        • 2nd, Larry and Chad are talking about the Sierra. In the past 50-70 years there have been fewer snags due to fire suppression and logging without current snag guidelines. Now we are seeing large fires with lots of snags. Do “wildlife” just happen to “need” all snags everywhere that have recently come about due to large fires? If not all, then how many? Based on the title, I think the paper you cite refers to Oregon and Washington.

          • In looking at historic photos throughout the west – Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, California. There seems to be far fewer snags in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, than there are today. While most of the snags in early photo’s are larger, there seems to be as many large snags currently and many more smaller ones, in everywhere I’ve been over the past decade with the exception of Western Washington. The biggest and most noticeable difference is the density of biomass, this is also backed up by survey notes and early inventory notes.
            It seems to me that we are going to destroy numerous species in an effort to achieve an agenda regardless of facts.

  11. I remember when the FS was hiring people to climb trees and blow the tops out of them to create snags.
    I thought it was a crazy idea. Seems to me the forest does a good job of creating its own snags. Trees are always dying.
    One time we were on a show and tell tour of a fire restoration project and the discussion was about the importance of legacy snags. When the clouds lifted all you could see was a sea of dead trees. With such a small percentage of any FS fire ever harvested it hard to believe that logging has much impact on snag retention.
    While once viewing a proposed FS fire salvage timber sale I ran across a crew marking snag retention circles. I remember thinking, they are leaving all the snags in the draws for the riparian reserves and now they are marking trees outside the riparian reserves, just what is it we get to harvest?
    Sorry, from observation, I find it hard to believe that the limited salvage logging that has taken place on our public lands has had a detrimental effect on the owl. But the fires themselves, are catastrophic.


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