Science News

Huge forest fires threaten existence of spotted owls, study says

Scientists have been unsure whether reducing the potential for megafires in forests through prescribed burns helped or hurt spotted owls, which may fare better when the natural fires are allowed to occur.

A study of the King Fire in California, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, reveals prescribed burns may be better because they appear to protect older, larger trees spotted owls live in to survive.

Prescribed burns are planned methods of reducing fuel on the ground of forests, and as a result the intensity of fires, but they often result in short-term damage to the bird’s habitats.

“Proponents of fuel reduction say it’s going to benefit the owl by reducing the frequency and size of megafires,” Zach Peery, an associate professor of forest and wildlife ecology, said in a press release. “But there is this body of literature that says the California spotted owl does just fine following severe fires, even when they are large.”

Scientists had been monitoring owls in the the Eldorado Forest in the Sierra Nevada in California for 23 years, starting in 1993, tagging the birds with colored bands and watching 45 sites where they lived.

The King Fire burned 99,000 acres in September and October 2014, torching 30 of the 45 sites where owls were known to reside. After the fire, researchers found every site that burned was bereft of owls within a year.

In the new study, after examining the effects of the megafire, Peery said the scientists found the long-term study of owls in the 137-square-mile area of forest was quite revealing.

With about half the study area burned, the scientists could see one side after a devestating fire — which previously they’d thought the owls could withstand — and when comparing it to the other half where owls remained.

“Almost all the owl territories within the megafire went from occupied to unoccupied,” Peery said. “We can now say that megafires have a significant impact on the spotted owl, and so we think that forest restoration through fuel reduction benefits both the forest ecosystem and the spotted owl.”