Moment of Truth for Saving the Northern Spotted Owl

At the risk of starting another round of acrimonious series of rants, here’s a well-written article from Audubon’s magazine, “It’s the Moment of Truth for Saving the Northern Spotted Owl.” It features some familiar names, such as Susan Jane Brown, senior attorney and wildlands program director with the Western Environmental Law Center, and Paul Henson, who led the US F&WS recovery program for the bird until his retirement in June. But also two folks from Green Diamond Resource Company who are working to save spotted owls on “industrial” timberland — and having some success.

Henson “says the situation calls for action on multiple fronts: Preserve the best remaining habitat, control the Barred Owl, and manage forests to avoid the most serious wildfires.”

These are points we might discuss, respectfully.

On the last point, for example, I agree that we need to manage forests — whether designated NSO habitat or not — to avoid the most serious wildfires. “That does not mean aggressively logging healthy forests, Henson stresses; what’s needed is targeted thinning and prescribed burning.”

IMHO, that includes targeted thinning and prescribed burning in late-successional reserves where stocking and fuel loads are higher than can be maintained going forward. Thinning being “commercial logging.” Like it or not, “commercial logging” is an important tool for conserving not just owls, but many other species and forest types. And Rx fire is risky, of course. To do nothing assures the NSO’s continued decline.

Maybe the folks involved with the NW Forest Plan revision process will consider all this.

Thanks to Nick Smith for including the article in his Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities email roundup today.

16 thoughts on “Moment of Truth for Saving the Northern Spotted Owl”

  1. Very interesting stuff. I offer the following observations, with malice toward none and charity toward all:

    1) As Steve wrote above: *I agree that we need to manage forests — whether designated NSO habitat or not — to avoid the most serious wildfires. “That does not mean aggressively logging healthy forests, Henson stresses; what’s needed is targeted thinning and prescribed burning.”*

    >> Well yes, but responding to Henson’s points, as Steve hints, the definitions of “aggressively,” “”logging,” “healthy,” and “targeted” are all in dispute.

    2) Quoting Steve again: *”IMHO, that includes targeted thinning and prescribed burning in late-successional reserves where stocking and fuel loads are higher than can be maintained going forward.”*

    >> Many years ago some colleagues and I met with Jerry Franklin and discussed, among many other things, the Eastside Screens (you kids can google that for some background). The discussion centered around the question of whether strict diameter limits on harvesting made sense. My take on the consensus was (1) no, they don’t make much scientific sense, but (2) they are easy to administer and easy to explain to the public.

    Limiting management activity in the LSRs follows the same pattern. Option 9 was, at the end of the day, a partition between lands that could supply the (dwindling, mostly OR) mills and lands that would probably never be available for that purpose. Ecologically, entering the LSRs could (probably does) make sense. But politically (and I don’t use that adverb pejoratively here) it probably doesn’t.

    These are *public* lands, and the public, for mostly good reasons, wants clear explanations of the applicable rule sets. But it is also true that the “public” is now demographically weighted to city folk who have never depended on public lands for their next paycheck. I’ll stop here, since I’ve just started reading Steve’s recent book. I suspect the essays contained therein will inform this discussion.

  2. Henson: “Preserve the best remaining habitat, … and manage forests to avoid the most serious wildfires.”

    This appears to encompass conflicting goals, but how about if we read it to say “only manage forests outside of the best remaining habitat?” (And assume LSRs are the best remaining habitat.)

    Steve: ‘(Commercial) thinning being “commercial logging.”’

    That seems to be a point we keep coming back to, and I’m glad we agree that there shouldn’t be a distinction between the two – it’s only a question of how intensive the logging is. But if a tree is big enough to sell, wouldn’t it also be valuable to owls? So that logging shouldn’t occur in owl habitat? (But removing smaller trees could.)

    • Of course, some people envision “commercial logging” as clearcuts and overstory removal. THAT is THEIR vision, not based on reality. Arguing about semantics is a distraction. A tactic used by both extremes to push their own agendas.

    • If commercial thinning (logging) isn’t done in some areas of NSO habitat, the likelihood of stand-replacing wildfire increases. Which would be better for owls? A stand where all trees are burned or one where, say, 10% of the trees are harvested — taking the smallest, leaving the largest?

    • SJ .. is this the section you mean?
      Habitat Management in Dry Forests
      Although the dry forest portion of the spotted owl’s range hosts a minority of the overall population, management of spotted owl habitat in these drier areas is an extremely complex undertaking. Changing climate conditions, dynamic
      ecological processes, and a variety of past and current management practices render broad management generalizations impractical. Recommendations for spotted owl recovery in this area also need to be considered alongside other land
      management goals – sometimes competing, sometimes complimentary – such as fuels management and invasive species control. In some cases, failure to intervene or restore forest conditions may lead to dense stands heavy with fuels
      and in danger of stand-replacing fires and insect and disease outbreaks. As a consequence, the dry forest discussion below provides substantial detail on spotted owl ecology in such areas, including a more specific treatment of the
      effects of climate, fire, and insect and disease outbreaks on spotted owl habitat.
      In general, we recommend that dynamic, disturbance-prone forests of the eastern Cascades, California Cascades and Klamath Provinces should be actively managed in a way that reconciles the overlapping goals of spotted owl conservation, responding to climate change and restoring dry forest ecological structure, composition and processes, including wildfire and other disturbances (Noss et al. 2006, Spies et al. 2006, 2010a, Agee and Skinner 2005, Healey et al.
      2008, Mitchell et al. 2009). Vegetation management of fire-prone forests can retain spotted owl habitat on the landscape by altering fire behavior and severity (Reinhardt et al. 2008, Haugo et al. 2010, Wiedinmyer and Hurteau 2010) and, if carefully and strategically applied, it could be part of a larger disturbance management regime for landscapes that attempts to reintegrate the relationship between forest vegetation and disturbance regimes, while also anticipating likely shifts in future ecosystem processes due to climate (Gartner et al. 2008, Noss et al. 2006, Lawler 2009, Mitchell et al. 2009, Littell et al. 2010, Swanson et al. 2010,Moritz et al. 2011). Such an approach is more likely to achieve ecologically and socially acceptable outcomes, and could enable transitions to more acceptable disturbance regimes, even if it includes more frequent but less severe wildfires (Allen et al. 2002, Wright and Agee 2004, Hessburg et al. 2005, 2007, Strittholt et al. 2006, Reinhardt et al. 2008). Some areas, such as dry portions of the Klamath Province, have a different fire ecology than areas in the East Cascades and may not be subject to the same generalizations (Odion et al. 2004, 2010, Skinner et al. 2006, Hanson et al. 2009, 2010); this should be evaluated at a finer scale by recovery implementation teams and interested land managers.
      Specific silvicultural practices that promote forest resilience and that can be applied to various forest types are given by Franklin et al. (2002, 2006, 2007), Hessburg et al. (2004, 2005, 2007), and Drever et al. (2006). Short-term decisions to increase forest ecosystem adaptations to climate-driven drought stresses may include vegetation management around older individual trees to reduce competition for moisture (Wright and Agee 2004, Agee and Skinner 2005,
      Reinhardt et al. 2008, Johnson and Franklin 2009, Haugo et al. 2010, Littell et al. 2010). Longer-term strategies may include protecting or restoring multiple examples of ecosystems and promoting heterogeneity among and within forest
      stands with the potential for natural adaptation to future (and unpredictable) climate changes (Hessburg et al. 2005, Kennedy and Wimberly 2009, Blate et al. 2009). In many areas, fire could be encouraged to perform its ecological role of introducing and maintaining landscape diversity (DellaSala et al. 2004, Reinhardt et al. 2008, Odion et al. 2010), although it may be desirable to manage fire severity or return intervals through vegetation management at various temporal and landscape scales (Agee and Skinner 2005, Haugo et al. 2010, Littell et al. 2010, Spies et al. 2010a, Moritz et al. 2011).
      There is an ongoing debate, as captured in Hanson et al. (2009, 2010) and Spies et al. (2010b), regarding the relative merits of active management in dry forest landscapes and the potential positive and negative impacts to spotted owls
      (Spies et al. 2006). This debate focuses on uncertainty and seems to be one of degree rather than fundamental difference in long-term conservation goals. We would like to build on areas of agreement for spotted owl recovery, but we
      recognize that many of these recommendations are controversial due to political and socio-economic reasons (e.g., see Spies et al. 2010a). However, given the need for action in the face of uncertainty (Agee 2002, Roloff et al. 2005, Carey 2007, Millar et al. 2007, Reinhardt et al. 2008, Littel et al. 2010, Mote et al. 2010, Shafer etal. 2010), we continue to recommend that land managers implement a program of landscape-scale, science-based adaptive restoration treatments in disturbance-prone forests that will reconcile the goals of conserving and encouraging spotted owl habitat while better enabling forests to: (1) recover from past management measures, and (2) respond positively to climate change with resilience (Spies et al. 2006, 2010a,b, Millar et al. 2007, Reinhardt et al. 2008, Haugo et al. 2010, Keane et al. 2009, North et al. 2010, Littell et al. 2010, Stephens et al. 2010). This should
      provide more high quality spotted owl habitat sooner and for longer into the future which will greatly benefit spotted owl recovery in the long-term. Several authors provide clear recommendations for how to consider reconciling spotted
      owl habitat management with vegetation management in the eastern Cascades

    • I think #1 makes my point:
      “Emphasize vegetation management treatments outside of spotted owl
      core areas or high value habitat where consistent with overall landscape
      project goals. The proportion of Federal land in the dry forest provinces
      that is currently spotted owl habitat ranges from 18 percent in the Eastern
      Washington Cascades to 42 percent in the Oregon Klamath Province
      (Davis and Lint 2005, Davis and Dugger in press). Thus, there are many
      opportunities to restore ecosystem components in areas that will have
      little direct effects on spotted owls. Where treatments will occur within
      spotted owl core areas or high value habitat, we recommend monitoring
      owl response to treatments or apply treatments as part of an adaptive
      management process to improve our understanding of how these
      activities affect spotted owls.”
      To the extent they seem to concede treatments in core areas, I think that is only because the role of recovery plans is advisory, and I have found they don’t like to appear to be encroaching on other agency authority. But this obviously makes them nervous.

      • Years ago, I did mark timber in a CASPO PAC, under very controlled guidelines. All cut-trees had to be between 10.0 and 14.9 inches dbh. The ‘unit’ was mostly overstory trees, but not near any nest trees. I am sure that this ‘unit’ did not ‘make a profit’ for anyone but, it was an actual attempt to address wildfire in spotted owl habitats. It was actually a ‘non-commercial task paid for with logs’, within a commercial thinning project.

        However, it isn’t really a very useful example of what might be proposed in NSO habitats.

  3. As much as people want to believe it, logging suitable spotted owl habitat to save it form fire does not pencil out. Paul Henson is flat wrong on this. These facts are not in dispute:
    1) There is a low probability that fuel treatments will interact with wildfire during the brief period before fuels regrow.
    2) Logging owl habitat degrades or downgrades or removes owl habitat. Canopy fuel is nesting habitat. Ladder fuel is roosting habitat. Surface fuels and dead wood are foraging habitat.
    3) No one can predict where, when, or what severity wildfire will occur.
    4) Spotted owl habitat is relatively resilient to wildfire.
    Bring these facts together and it’s clear that many acres of suitable habitat will be degrade by fuel reduction logging than will be saved from fire. The spotted owl would rather take its chances with fire, than be subject to the combined effects of logging plus fire.

    Another study showed that suitable spotted owl habitat is relatively resilient to fire effects.

    Pre-fire nesting/roosting habitat had lower probability of burning at moderate or high severity compared to other forest types under high burning conditions. Our results indicate that northern spotted owl habitat can buffer the negative effects of climate change by enhancing biodiversity and resistance to high-severity fires, which are predicted to increase in frequency and extent with climate change. Within this region, protecting large blocks of old forests could be an integral component of management plans that successfully maintain variability of forests in this mixed-ownership and mixed-severity fire regime landscape and enhance conservation of many species.

    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. 10.1002/ecs2.2696.

    Lehmkuhl et al. (2015) found –

    3. Tradeoffs between fire resistance and NSO habitat quality are real. Our results demonstrate that balancing the goals of increasing fire resilience while maintaining habitat function, especially nesting and roosting, for the NSO in the same individual stand is a difficult, if not an impossible, task. Even lighter thinning treatments typically reduce canopy cover below 40 percent. The reality is that nesting and roosting NSO habitat is by definition very susceptible to high-severity fire; owl habitat value and fire risk are in direct conflict on any given acre. …

    Lehmkuhl, John; Gaines, William; Peterson, Dave W.; Bailey, John; Youngblood, Andrew, tech. eds. 2015. Silviculture and monitoring guidelines for integrating restoration of dry mixed-conifer forest and spotted owl habitat management in the eastern Cascade Range. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-915. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 158 p.

    In early 2012, FWS released their proposed rules for spotted owl critical habitat and an announcement of their intention to encourage widespread “active management” within suitable, critical habitat. Fed. Reg. March 8, 2012. This brought out critics in the scientific community who call for more rigorous analysis of the consequences before widespread adoption of logging as a means of habitat management.

    [W]e are concerned that the decision to move forward with untested “active management” of federally owned forest lands at the landscape level prior to validation through the scientific peer-review process represents a potentially serious lapse in the application of the scientific process. This decision may conflict with the DOI’s scientific integrity policy as well as the mandates of several environmental laws …

    The Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) considers active forest management as including those techniques that involve aggressive forest thinning and associated forest canopy reductions in dry forests and modified regeneration harvests in mature moist forests. Given that the primary driver of the spotted owl’s decline has been the destruction of old-growth forest habitat by logging, which will be the means used to achieve the anticipated forest thinning and regeneration harvests, we are especially concerned about the potential habitat impacts of adopting untested “active management” forestry technique. Accordingly, we request that the DOI prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under NEPA to provide a rational, scientific approach for the testing of active management forestry in order to ensure that such techniques are validated through the peer-review process prior to their utilization at any commercial or landscape scale in the spotted owl’s critical habitat.

    The Presidential Memorandum accompanying the proposed critical habitat designation also noted: “on the basis of extensive scientific analysis, areas identified as critical habitat should be subject to active management, including logging in order to produce the variety of stands of trees required for healthy forests. The proposal rejects the more conservative view among conservation biologists that land managers should take a ‘hands off’ approach to such forest habitat in order to promote this species’ health.” We are concerned that this memorandum overstates the quality and quantity of scientific research on the potential benefits of active forest management, especially in the Pacific Northwest on a federally threatened species. In particular, we are unaware of any substantial or significant scientific literature that demonstrates that active forest management enhances the recovery of spotted owls.

    after a full scientific peer-review of the data collected, the FWS and DOI would be able to make a fully informed decision regarding short- and long-term management of critical habitat. We believe that such an approach is clearly warranted given that the spotted owl is a closed canopy dependent species and active management may degrade habitat for the owl and encourage further expansion of the barred owl. Notably, recent evidence has shown spotted owl extirpation rates related to barred owl invasions are highest for spotted owls with low levels of old growth habitat in nesting areas or high levels of forest fragmentation[fn]. Scaling up logging activities throughout the Pacific Northwest, particularly on BLM lands in western Oregon where “active management” is ostensibly going to be integral to pending resource management plan revisions, is therefore premature and not representative of the best available science.

    Society for Conservation Biology, The Wildlife Society, American Ornithologists Union. 4-2-2012 letter to Secretary of Interior Salazar. [fn] citing Dugger, K.M., R.G. Anthony, and L.S. Andrews. 2012. Transit dynamics of invasive competition: barred owls, spotted owls, habitat, and the demons of competition present. Ecological Applications (2011) Volume: 21: 2459-2468.

  4. In contrast to what some seem to think, commercial logging is not necessary to mitigate wildfire risk to spotted owls in frequent fire forests. Take a look at the National Parks in the Sierra. The spotted owls are doing fine (compared to the rest of the Sierra, even before the megafires) with small diameter treatments in control points and the return of good fire to the system.

    It is often suggested on here that using fire for ecological benefits is too risky and we should stick to commercial logging and mechanical work. I would argue that not managing fire for ecological benefits is the only means to mitigate the threat of megafires in frequent fire forests and not doing so is a greater risk. Commercial treatments that are not underburned are not very effective at stopping wildfire under extreme fire weather and they are not very resilient to wildfire under those conditions. Even burn-only treatments are more effective at fire risk mitigation than commercial treatments.

    The only effective way to stop and/or reduce the loss of basal area in a wind-driven run is to have scattered large contiguous areas (>1,000 acres) of previously burned forest (<20 years old) in the path of the run. Without ensuring this is part of the management strategy, we are never going to get a handle on the megafire issue. Sure, commercial harvest make prescribed fire easier to accomplish than no treatment, but that only matters for anchor points to manage the fire.

    Thinking about NSO in moist westside cascade and coastal forests, I am puzzled by what one can and should do to prevent megafires in these areas. These forests are adapted to very infrequent high severity fire. They have climate limited fire regimes, which are being converted to fuel limited fire regimes due to climate change. This results in a novel condition that the forest system is not adapted to. Can one manage an infrequent climate limited fire system using the same techniques and principles used to manage a frequent fuel limited fire forest and provide ecosystem integrity? I guess we'll find out.

      • But not when it coincides with spotted owl nesting and roosting habitat. The way commercial treatments are implemented, habitat complexity is reduced too much via commercial harvest. Humans are rarely able to mimic the effects of low and moderate severity fire with commercial treatments in a way that doesn’t result in significant reductions in habitat quality. It takes a really good wildlife bio, forester, operator, and sales admin working together with an understanding of owl habitat restoration to pull it off, an extremely rare combination in the agency.

        For owls, I would prefer we used commercial harvest in areas surrounding high quality habitat, then use fire to treat the habitat and further harden the surrounding forest. This needs to be done at scale. Which is why I am such a proponent of the POD concept. Treat the perimeter of the POD (with or without commercial) and get fire on every acre within the POD.

        • Of course, everything is dependent on site-specific conditions. The birds still need to retain protections, and I am not in favor of any blanket actions mandated upon established known nests’ areas. I do think that there is no lack of “roosting areas”. They certainly don’t need a lot of specially-protected roosting areas. The wildlife folks should hold the reins on such projects, IMHO.

          In the past, I have set aside up to 2 acre clumps of untouched forest, within the cutting unit, as part of a “clumps and gaps” strategy. Such clumps might supply the roosting areas?


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