Logging, not wildfire, is most likely driving northern spotted owl decline
The northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) is the "canary in the coal-mine" for the health of old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, U.S.A. This owl indicates the status of old-growth forest, which has dwindled to only 15% of its former extent because of logging. The spotted owl is adapted to hunt and nest in the complex mixture of severely burned forest and unburned old-growth forest patches found within the large wildfires that are a natural part of the owls' dry forest habitat.
Unfortunately, federal forest management agencies have recently started to blame wildfires for spotted owl population declines. However, a new study published in the journal Forests documents the massive extent of logging in northern spotted owl territories that have burned, indicating that logging rather than wildfire is likely driving owl declines.
Conservation scientists combed through hundreds of northern spotted owl survey data forms provided by the U.S. Forest Service for national forests from northern California to Washington where severe fire burned through owl territories. The scientists determined just how many of 105 burned northern spotted owl territories were logged before and after wildfires over an 18-year period (from 2000–2017), along with those where barred owls were also present, to sort out what might be driving spotted owl nest site abandonment that federal agencies blame on wildfires. The larger, more aggressive and invasive barred owls compete with spotted owls for the same nest sites, which along with habitat destruction from logging is contributing to spotted owl declines.
The researchers documented that logging affected 87% of severely burned northern spotted owl sites, with barred owls recorded at 22% of the burned-and-logged sites. Sixty percent of severely burned northern spotted owl sites had logging both before and after fires—typically experiencing multiple logging impacts—while only 12% of severely burned sites had no logging or barred owl detections. This indicates the rarity of northern spotted owl territories subjected to severe fire without the compounding stressors of logging and invasive barred owls. The study results suggest that the northern spotted owl will only be able to persist if the fire-dependent forests where it lives are protected from logging and barred owls.
According to lead owl researcher Dr. Monica Bond of the Wild Nature Institute, "Widespread logging is occurring before and after wildfires in spotted owl territories that is ignored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the main agency responsible for the recovery of the owl." Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, chief scientist of Wild Heritage and co-author on the study noted, "the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues permits to the Forest Service to kill spotted owls like it was handing out candy at Halloween."
DellaSala served on the northern spotted owl recovery team in 2006–2008 and has been asking both agencies to take a hard look at the impacts of logging in owl territories before issuing take permits or assuming that burned sites are no longer owl habitat.
"This is promising news, because we can abstain from logging and we can eliminate barred owls—those two measures alone can help reverse the spotted owl's extinction trajectory," stated Bond. DellaSala added, "the northern spotted owl is nature's way of telling us that we have pushed these ecosystems beyond their limits and we need to show restraint given that the same habitat spotted owls occupy also provides us with clean water, climate regulation, and countless benefits for fish and wildlife also at risk to logging."
More information: Monica L. Bond et al, Forest Management, Barred Owls, and Wildfire in Northern Spotted Owl Territories, Forests (2022). DOI: 10.3390/f13101730
Provided by Wild Nature Institute