New Paper on Owls and Fire

Title of a paper ($) in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, “Is fire “for the birds”? How two rare species influence fire management across the US,” by 17 authors including noted fire ecologist Scott L. Stephens (professor at UC Berkeley) and Thomas A. Spies (key owl researcher at the Pacific Northwest Research Station). UC Berkeley press release:

Spotted owl populations are in decline all along the West Coast, and as climate change increases the risk of large and destructive wildfires in the region, these iconic animals face the real threat of losing even more of their forest habitat.

Rather than attempting to preserve the owl’s remaining habitat exactly as is, wildfire management — through prescribed burning and restoration thinning — could help save the species, argues a new paper by fire ecologists and wildlife biologists and appearing today (July 2 ) in the journal, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The paper compares the plight of the owl with that of another iconic threatened species, the red-cockaded woodpecker, which has made significant comebacks in recent years — thanks, in part, to active forest management in the southern pine forests that the woodpecker calls home. Though the habitat needs of the two birds are different, both occupy forests that once harbored frequent blazes before fire suppression became the norm.

“In the South, the Endangered Species Act has been used as a vehicle to empower forest restoration through prescribed burning and restoration thinning, and the outcome for the red-cockaded woodpecker has been positive and enduring,” said Scott Stephens, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author on the study.

“In the West, it’s just totally the opposite,” Stephens added. “Even though both places physically have strong connections to frequent fire, the feeling here is that the best thing to do is to try to protect what we have and not allow the return of frequent fire — but that’s really difficult when you have unbridled fires just ripping through the landscape.”

However, suppressing all fires in order to encourage growth of these dense canopies also creates conditions that are ripe for large, severe wildfires that can take out not just the smaller trees, but entire forests, obliterating swaths of owl habitat in the process. The 2014 King Fire, for example, tore through regions of the Eldorado National Forest that were home to a long-term study of the California spotted owl and caused the bird’s largest population decline in the 23-year history of the study.

“A key question to be asking is: Where would owl habitats be with more characteristic fire regimes, and could we tailor landscape conditions where these habitats are less vulnerable and more supportive of today’s wildfires?” said co-author Paul Hessburg, a research landscape ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station.

The solution would mean, “essentially creating less habitat in order to have more in the long run,” he said.

15 thoughts on “New Paper on Owls and Fire”

  1. The steep canyons of the Sierra Nevada have often been protected in multiple ways, with spotted owls (and goshawks) being the main rare occupants. Those canyons have been acting as conduits for fire, spreading fire both up and down, because of the local winds. There’s really no avenue to do much work in those canyons, these days. It’s going to be very painful to watch those places go up in smoke.

  2. They could try harder to put the fires out when they are small. Then do prescribe fire in the wetter months if they think they really have to. Using wildfires as a “forest health” management tool has costs us billions of dollars, killed billions of trees, and has generally ###### things up.
    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they keep doing the same thing every year, but I am.

  3. From the little I know about the needs of these species, I don’t see much similarity. Red-cockaded woodpeckers nest in cavities, and recovery has been largely the result of putting up artificial nest boxes and translocation of woodpeckers to start new colonies. Owls are more dependent on actual old-growth ecosystems that are harder to recreate. This points to a greater risk to owls of disrupting the ecosystem through management.

    The other side of the issue is the risk of fire, which is less than most people think for owls: “Contrary to current perceptions and recovery efforts for the Spotted Owl, mixed‐severity fire does not appear to be a serious threat to owl populations; rather, wildfire has arguably more benefits than costs for Spotted Owls.”

    So if it’s just the “large and destructive” wildfires owls need to worry about, where are they likely to occur (with what probability)?

    • Rarely do articles go into the details of the lives of spotted owls. These details are essential to forming ideas about ‘what to do’. The anti-management folks want to lump all ‘habitat’ (nesting and foraging) into one giant blob, per pair of birds. The truth is that they forage on so many types of landscapes that “foraging habitat” needs no extra ‘protections’. They will also share the foraging habitats. Spotted owls must have protected nesting habitats, where any form of management is based on improvement or protection of such rare habitats. Ask any wildlife biologist what is the biggest threat to protected nesting habitats. Ask any fire/fuels guy what kind of wildfire is likely in protected owl nesting habitats?

      Owls need a system of nests, in their territorial habitats. Each year, the young are booted out, left to fend for themselves. They have to find a mate and some unoccupied nesting habitat, in order to multiply. We have what we have, and we should be protecting it from ANY threat.

      Owls prefer a crowded forest with good canopy cover, for their nesting habitats. However, wildfires burn intensely in such forests. Is there a compromise? Yes, but it’s not a ‘fair’ compromise. Again, projects must directly benefit the owls. Thinning ladder fuels and removing submerchantable fuels is about all that can be done, from a management standpoint.

      • Thanks, Larry. If others agree then the best way to keep fire out of nesting habitat would be some combo of treating the stands, putting in fuel breaks strategically to help suppress a fire making a run in that direction (possibly SPLATS) and having protection as part of the values at risk in suppression decisions.

        Jon, I’m not sure that “management” is a big threat if is not allowed near nesting habitats.

        Also Don Yasuda said in his ppt “The problem isn’t that every fire burns at high severity. It’s that we are getting some very large fires that are burning large blocks of contiguous acres) at high severity.”

  4. One of things forest planners are doing these days is modeling future vegetation trends, which can then be used to project effects on wildlife. The results would include the effects of management and projected climate/fire regimes. I know the Inyo is using “strategic fire management zones” for management areas in their revised plan, so I hoped to see how the outcomes for California spotted owls might change based on alternative land allocations. Unfortunately, the FEIS summary provides very little useful information.

    “This (low impact) alternative emphasizes the use of prescribed fire and limits mechanical treatment of medium and large conifers for vegetation management. This could limit the amount of projects and the enhancement of strategic fire management features to meet resource objectives.”

    And it says nothing at all about effects on spotted owls: “Retains emphasis on short term habitat protection for California spotted owl.” This just repeats what the plan direction is, rather than saying what the effects are (as required by NEPA). There is no indication of any actual analysis. If forest planning isn’t going to help answer these kinds of questions for a national forest, it really isn’t worth much.

    • That’s the whole problem, in my mind, with forest plan NEPA- it’s hard to be specific enough to generate effects- NEPA for “might could” do this or that. It ends up being a series of linked assumptions and modeling. Which may not be worth much either, IMHO. If you can’t really do NEPA unless you know exactly where you’re doing something (argument against landscape scale EIS’s) then how can it be argued that forest plan NEPA does something valuable? It’s puzzling to me.

    • I’m pretty sure that the Inyo doesn’t have any spotted owls. I don’t think they have had any commercial logging for decades, as well. The nearest mill is maybe north of Bakersfield, too far away to be interested in meager timber.

  5. There’s programmatic NEPA and there’s project NEPA.

    The Forest Service chooses what kinds of programmatic decisions it makes in forest plans, and the NEPA requirements flow from that. Different land allocation decisions have different effects. For programmatic NEPA, you just have to do the best analysis you can to provide meaningful information for choosing an alternative. Assumptions and modeling that show different outcomes (and discuss sensitivity to assumptions) are better than subjective qualitative comparisons (which are generally considered insufficient under NEPA).

    Project NEPA involves a final commitment of resources, so obviously you need to know what the actual effects would be, which requires knowing where you’re doing something. This is why I think landscape-scale decisions that include “design criteria” for future application may really be mid-level programmatic decisions, and further NEPA would be required for actual projects.

  6. Kind of interesting that they would say something like “have less habitat in the short term to have more in the long term”. I don’t know that that would really be the case – or at least it doesn’t seem that way from reading the paper. You would have less habitat in the short term and less in the long term, but the habitat you would have would be more resistant to disturbance. And, they haven’t done the homework to say how LONG it would take to get to that more stable state – 50 years? 100 years? That would provide information for a meaningful discussion (and I am referring to northern spotted owls, not California or Mexican owls) about the tradeoffs.

    • Coincidentally, this is also a key question in the proposed NEPA regulations. (See

      Regarding “extraordinary circumstances,” which would preclude the use of a categorical exclusion, the proposed language says, “The responsible official may consider whether long-term beneficial effects outweigh short-term adverse effects in making this determination.” So the official could analyze and weigh the long-term benefits and short-term harm, and discount the harmful effects to the point of not being extraordinary circumstances. It would appear petty unlikely that any such official would have the information needed to do that – and that any time this is a scientific question, it would be “controversial” enough to warrant at least an EA to publicly examine the scientific arguments about long-term and short-term effects. (Unless maybe they had already figured it out based on some actual analysis at the forest plan level.)

      • Why wouldn’t the Responsible Official have the info necessary to do that? They have technical specialists who generally keep up with this kind of thing, and if there is “scientific controversy” I don’t know that writing two pages about it in an EA is better than summarizing it in a DN. If someone wants to take it to court they can, just as if they disagreed with the same argument in the EA (or the EIS for that matter). What am I missing?

        • Regarding necessary info, ask Anonymous, who read the paper. My point about the Inyo in the NEPA post was that, if there has ever been any actual analysis that compares long-term and short-term effects on that national forest, I haven’t seen it, and I’m skeptical that district-level technical specialists are going to do something this challenging. It could and should be done at a forest level for forest planning.

          My other point is that this kind of question is not CE material (which uses a decision memo, not a decision notice) because there is controversy about effects on an at-risk species; long-term vs short-term effects on owls has been a central point of controversy on this blog. And if they use a CE, the public won’t get to review the analysis until objections/litigation. It looks like the Forest Service wants more litigation.

  7. Any study that purports to show habitat benefits to late successional species from logging to control fire MUST address the very low probability that fuel treatments will interact with fire, so many acres will be degraded by fuel reduction and few acres will benefit from modified fire behavior. Spotted owls and other wildlife that live in dense forests would much rather take their chances with fire than face the loss of habitat from the combined effects of logging plus fire. I have not found a full copy of this paper, but I don’t see evidence that this paper deals with the probability issue.

    • Of course, the USFS isn’t thinning to “control fire”. It’s more about mitigation and a reduction in fire intensity. In the Sierra Nevada, the effects of thinning are robust and long-lasting. You can’t just exclude the other benefits of thinning. In the Sierra Nevada, around Yosemite, it is virtually assured that thinned forests will interact with fire. Tree rings tell us that 10-14 wildfires have happened in the last 100 years. Fire suppression is a big part of the purpose and need for the projects.


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