Study: No increased fire threat in owl habitat

Study: No increased fire threat in owl habitat

7 July 2009

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A new study challenges a basic justification about the threat of wildfires that the Bush administration used to make room for more logging in old growth forests that are home to the northern spotted owl.

The study, appearing in the journal Conservation Biology, found no increasing threat of severe wildfires destroying old growth forests in the drier areas where the owl lives in Oregon, Washington and Northern California.

“The argument used to justify a massive increase in logging under the (spotted owl) recovery program was not based on sound science,” said Chad T. Hanson, a fire and forest ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who was lead author of the study. “The recovery plan took a leap-before-you-look approach and did it without sound data.”

The spotted owl was declared a threatened species in 1990 primarily due to heavy logging in old growth forests. Its numbers continue to decline, despite sharp reduction in logging on federal lands in 1994 that caused economic pain still felt in the region.

The Bush administration agreed to produce a new spotted owl recovery plan to settle a timber industry lawsuit.

The plan blamed declining owl numbers on the barred owl, an aggressive East Coast cousin that has driven spotted owls from their territory, and on wildfires that have destroyed old growth forests. It eliminated habitat reserves in the Northwest Forest Plan and proposed aggressive thinning in the dry forests of the Klamath Mountains and the east side of the Cascades to reduce the threat of fire.

The Obama administration told a federal court last April it would not defend the Bush administration’s plan because an inspector general’s report concluded it had been politically manipulated. The administration is negotiating over the scope and timing for a review with conservation groups that filed lawsuits.

“By July 30 we should know how we are going to proceed,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Joan Jewett said. “We will be reviewing the study, which is just the type of information we’ll be considering as we determine what, if any, changes need to be made to the spotted owl recovery plan.”

The study took satellite imagery on fire severity from 1984-2005, and compared it with government data identifying old growth forests on the east side of the Cascades in Oregon, Washington and California, and the Klamath Mountains of southern Oregon and California — all identified in the recovery plan as having the highest fire danger.

The rate of high-severity wildfires in old growth was 1.34 percent on the east side of the Cascades, and 1.74 percent in the Klamath Mountains, the study found. That amounts to a high-severity fire burning a given piece of old growth forest every 746 years on the east side of the Cascades, and every 575 years in the Klamaths.

The recovery plan looked at smaller portions of the landscape than the study and shorter periods of time, and extrapolated those results to reach its conclusions, Hanson said.

“The existing recovery plan is so clearly based on these incorrect assumptions that you can’t just tweak it here and amend it here and fix it,” Hanson said.

Forests are actually maturing into old growth suitable for owl habitat five to 14 times faster than they are being burned by wildfire, added co-author Dominic DellaSala, chief scientist for the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy and a member of the spotted owl recovery team that fought with the Bush administration over the owl recovery plan.

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