RMRS: Spotted Owls, Wildfire, and Forest Restoration

New report from the Rocky Mountain Research Station: “Through the Smoke: Spotted Owls, Wildfire, and Forest Restoration”. Lots of focus on Mexican spotted owls, but also their cousins.


  • Wildfires are likely to increase in extent or severity, or both, throughout most of the range of the spotted owl, indicating a potential for large-scale habitat loss in the future.
  • Within the range of the Mexican spotted owl, a 13-fold increase in area burned is expected by the 2080s.
  • High-severity fire can decrease habitat suitability considerably for nesting Mexican spotted owls. For example, mean habitat suitability decreased by 21.9 percent 3 years after the Wallow Fire in Arizona.
  • Mexican spotted owl occupancy decreased by more than 50 percent 14 years after the Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona in 2002.
  • Areas with suitable nesting habitat may be more prone to high-severity fire.
  • Some types of fire can result in improved habitat for prey and food resources for the Mexican spotted owl, but that improvement may not compensate for the loss and degradation of nesting habitat.

Quote from Joe Ganey, research wildlife biologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station:

“There’s a high potential for rapid loss of the highest quality owl habitat due to increasing wildfire extent and severity,” Ganey says. “That’s kind of the crux of the issue. Everything that we know from 40 years of research on spotted owls across their entire range suggest that this could be the case.”


  • Protecting remnant patches of mixed conifer and pine-oak forest with large trees and high canopy cover is important to conserve Mexican spotted owl nesting sites.
  • Long-term monitoring is essential to understanding spotted owl population trends and response to fire.
  • Integrating the beneficial roles of fire and restoration thinning into spotted owl conservation in the West may be critical for maintaining habitat, especially with a changing climate.


8 thoughts on “RMRS: Spotted Owls, Wildfire, and Forest Restoration”

  1. This was interesting…

    “The project has been more challenging than Hedwall anticipated––it took 8 years to get the necessary approvals. And because the Southwest lacks the infrastructure associated with
    a robust commercial timber industry, it is difficult and costly to hire operators with the equipment and skills to do mechanical thinning. “

  2. Even if wildfire harms owl habitat, their proposed solution (thinning) is not well considered, because thinning also harms owl habitat, so finding a solution requires carefully comparing the effects of fire vs the effects of logging. I don’t see that they have done that here.

    To justify such logging in suitable owl habitat to beneficially reduce fire effects requires several findings:
    (1) that wildfire is highly likely to occur at the site of the logging treatment, (this is not likely. only a small fraction of fuel reduction logging is expected to interact with wildfire during the period before fuels regrow, so most logging will cause habitat degradation that is not offset by modified fire behavior. Dennis C. Odion, Chad T. Hanson, Dominick. A. DellaSala, William L. Baker, and Monica L. Bond. 2014. Effects of Fire and Commercial Thinning on Future Habitat of the Northern Spotted Owl. The Open Ecology Journal, 2014, 7, 37-51 37);
    (2) that if fire does occur it is likely to harm owl habitat (Owl habitat is relatively resilient to fire. Many fires are either beneficial or neutral. Lesmeister, D. B., S. G. Sovern, R. J. Davis, D. M. Bell, M. J. Gregory, and J. C. Vogeler. 2019. Mixed-severity wildfire and habitat of an old-forest obligate. Ecosphere 10(4):e02696), and
    (3) that spotted owls are more likely to be harmed and imperiled by wildfire than by logging at a scale necessary to reduce fire hazard. (Meaningful modification of fire effects requires landscape scale treatments and retreatments, the net effects of which is worse than wildfire fire.) Principle Investigator: Dr. Martin G. Raphael. Project Title: Assessing the Compatibility of Fuel Treatments, Wildfire Risk, and Conservation of Northern Spotted Owl Habitats and Populations in the Eastern Cascades: A Multi-scale Analysis. JFSP 09-1-08-31 Final Report, Page 19. http://www.firescience.gov/projects/09-1-08-31/project/09-1-08-31_final_report.pdf.

    • Second, just because some scientists have estimated that fire is unlikely to occur, nor have negative impacts to owl habitat, does not mean that that is true; it is against the lived experience of many.

      • If you gather together those who have actually experienced an unlikely event, their assessment of the probability of that event would be very high.

        Or is this like, just because the experts on elections found no evidence of widespread voter fraud does not mean that it didn’t happen, since it is against the lived experience (as told them by others) of many?

        • Jon, there’s a great history and sociology on the use of experts. Why would we believe one scientific paper that models what might happen over other scientists studying what is happening?

          As to voter fraud, I don’t think that’s about expertise in the same way. That’s more about the legitimacy of institutions and how they are managed. That’s where we’d expect the truth to emerge from an investigation run by unbiased folks (or half from different parties). I think part of the problem with the voter fraud issue is that there is no time for such an investigation before we need to inaugurate someone. Fortunately for things we’re involved in, there’s a close to infinite amount of time to figure things out. As we’ve seen in our own humble world, we get better at things that happen every year (fires)(and are clearly organized with the roles of different players clear as per the IC system), not so good at things that happen infrequently (pandemics). I think Presidential elections are somewhere in the middle, and the switch to mail voting (where it wasn’t used before) gave some people a lack of confidence.

      • What about those parts of the Sierra Nevada, where tree rings indicate up to 14 fires per century? Certainly, a wildfire every 10 years is mitigated by thinning projects, solely within their foraging habitats.

        It seems to me that much depends upon the kinds of “thinning projects” implemented, and whether it is located in foraging, or nesting habitat.


Leave a Comment