Fires ravage habitat for spotted owl
Article Date: 2005-07-05 Source: http://www.bendbulletin.com
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
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."
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