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Fires ravage habitat for spotted owl

Article Date: 2005-07-05   Source: http://www.bendbulletin.com   Comments: 0

By Rachel Odell

Bend, Oregon, U.S.A. - The wildfires that have raged across Central Oregon forests in recent years have decimated spotted owl habitat, forcing that threatened species' population to all-time lows.

The fires obliterated at least 19 nests from Sisters to Crescent, destroying the majority of known nesting sites on this dry, east-of-the-Cascades forest.

The fires also caught national attention and galvanized President Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative, a plan to increase thinning and logging in national forests that became law in 2003. The plan calls for increasing logging and thinning projects to reduce fire risk.

Now, with wildfire season just a lightning storm away, public land managers and wildlife officials want to accomplish two opposing goals: reducing wildfire risk in compliance with the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act and protecting spotted owl habitat.

The owls thrive in the areas that makes wildfire managers cringe. Crowded tree stands with dead snags, thick clusters and multiple layers of vegetation are ideal for owls, and for fueling major conflagrations, said Laurie Turner, biologist for the Deschutes National Forest.

With the mandate from Congress to clean up the forest, officials are wrestling with how to maintain spotted owl protection, said Phil Cruz, district ranger of the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District.

Protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, spotted owls have become emblematic of divisive fights over logging and environmental protection in the 1990s.

"The remaining owl habitat we have is very valuable, and so we have to leave some of those places, even with their wildfire risk," Cruz said. "We're doing everything we can to protect and armor those areas."

That means focusing intense thinning and logging projects around — but not in — spotted owl habitat, to safeguard the species. Spotted owls have declined for at least the past 15 years, said Eric Forsman, a biologist with the Pacific Northwest Research station in Corvallis.

That population drop has been dramatic in Central Oregon, largely because of wildfires. In 2003, the B&B Fire burned 92,000 acres on the Sisters Ranger District. In 2002 the Eyerly Fire burned about 24,000 acres on the Sisters Ranger District and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. South of Bend, on the Crescent Ranger District, the Davis Fire burned 21,000 acres in 2003.

At least 18 of the 24 known spotted owl nests in the Sisters District went up in smoke during those fires, Turner said. Cruz said at least one nest burned on the Crescent Ranger District in the Davis Fire.

Even with major spotted owl habitat destroyed by fire, Forest Service officials still need to make management decisions that are in the owl's best interests in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, said Jim Stone, a silviculturist — or habitat specialist — from the Crescent Ranger District.

For instance, when officials plan a timber sale, they must survey the area for owl nests before logging, in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Northwest Forest Plan. When they plan to restore burned areas that were once full of old-growth trees and home to spotted owls, they must try to achieve that same quality of forest, even though it could take 200 years to get there, he said.

And officials will not plan any thinning or logging within a 1.2-mile radius of known spotted owl nests. That's the accepted home range for a northern spotted owl, Stone said.

Concurrently, officials want to provide safe areas around the known nest sites, Stone said.

"The emphasis is looking more at the landscape and asking, ‘what is our fireshed, and are there things we can do to make a difference to help protect these owl home ranges?'"

Jim Agee, an ecology professor at the University of Washington, said officials should remove many of the thin and dead trees in "east-side" forests to reduce density. He also advocates protecting all old-growth trees, typically the most valuable trees to loggers, and not to cut burned timber, a practice known as salvage logging.

Most spotted owl habitat exists west of the Cascades in old-growth fir stands Still, owls appear to thrive on the dry side of the mountains, Forsman said.

The owls have hatched more young in east-side forests than in west-side ones, according to a recent study Forsman worked on. That study compared reproduction rates — the number of young hatched per year — between the Wenatchee National Forest, in Central Washington, and in the Olympic Peninsula. The results showed spotted owls hatched an average of slightly more than one young per year. By contrast, owls on the west side hatched about 0.76 young per year.

In 1999 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for managing threatened and endangered species, decided against removing the spotted owl from the endangered species list. Agency spokesman Phil Carroll said removing the risk of wildfires consuming owl nests on the east side could benefit the animal. Researcher Forsman agreed, but said other factors, including competition from barred owls, influence spotted owls more than wildfire.

"The wildfires were big and impacted a large number of birds," he said. "But the east slope is a huge area, and there remains a lot of habitat that has not burned up. Fires have always been a part of the ecosystem, and populations of owls have ebbed and flowed in response to the natural and human-caused burns."

Disclaimer: This article has been reproduced from http://www.bendbulletin.com and placed here for comment. OwlPages.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any information in this article, and does not necessarily agree with the author's opinions.

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