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Conflicting Perspectives on Spotted Owls, Wildfire, and Forest Restoration

Author(s): Joseph L. Ganey, Ho Yi Wan, Samuel A. Cushman, Christina D. Vojta
Year Published: 2017

Evidence of increasing fire extent and severity in the western US in recent decades has raised concern over the effects of fire on threatened species such as the spotted owl (Strix occidentalis Xantus de Vesey), which nests in forests with large trees and high canopy cover that are vulnerable to high-severity wildfire. A dichotomy of views exists on the impact of high-severity wildfire on the spotted owl. One view holds that reduction in the extent of forests with large trees and high canopy cover due to high-severity wildfire is a primary threat to spotted owls, and that fuels reduction treatments that successfully reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire can aid in sustaining desired conditions for this owl. A conflicting view maintains that high-severity wildfire was relatively common in many forest types occupied by spotted owls and does not pose an immediate threat to spotted owls, and that fuels reduction treatments are misguided because they degrade owl habitat and do not reduce the extent of high-severity fire. Based on the existing literature, we argue that considerable uncertainty remains regarding the response of spotted owls to high-severity wildfire, especially over longer time frames and across the three subspecies (California [Strix occidentalis occidentalis Xantus de Vesey], Mexican [S. o. lucida Nelson], and northern [S. o. caurina Merriam]) of spotted owls. The considerable extent of high-severity wildfire within the ranges of these subspecies over recent years, coupled with the trend toward increasing extent and severity of megafires, suggests that the cumulative effects of these fires could be significant throughout the range of this owl. Forest restoration or fuels reduction treatments may aid in reducing habitat loss, particularly when strategically located to optimize reduction of fire risk, but also may locally impact spotted owl habitat. We advocate further evaluation of both the impacts of such treatments to spotted owls and the effectiveness of such treatments in mitigating fire behavior. We also advocate wider use of managed fire to reduce risk of high-severity wildfire. Finally, given the paucity of long-term data on this topic, we recommend targeted research aimed at a decade or longer time periods after fires. These studies should include measures of demographic performance, and should be designed to elucidate differences in those metrics related to landscape pattern, forest type, and subspecies ecology. Such information would inform the debate over how to integrate the conservation of spotted owls and their habitat with fuels reduction and forest restoration objectives.

Citation: Ganey JL, Wan HY, Cushman SA, Vojta CD. 2017. Conflicting Perspectives on Spotted Owls, Wildfire, and Forest Restoration. Forest Ecology 13 (3), p. 146-165. doi: 10.4996/fireecology.130318020
Topic(s): Fire & Wildlife, Birds, Birds of Prey
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 16339
Record updated: Feb 16, 2018