Fires might at once aid, hurt spotted owls

April 27, 2018

For some animals, wildfire can be a blessing or a curse.

For the Mexican spotted owl, it’s something of a mystery.

The threatened bird that lives in the forests of New Mexico faces a good news/bad news scenario when a fire erupts. Researchers disagree about the impact that severe forest fires have on spotted owls, prompting advocates for the threatened birds to differ on the best way to protect them. The Mexican spotted owl is one of three types of the spotted owl.

While high-intensity fires — a feared possibility during a year of severe drought — could destroy the favored habitat of Mexican spotted owls, low-severity fires, including prescribed burns, could bring a latent benefit by clearing up hunting grounds and creating new grasses for their favorite prey, said Danny Burton, a biologist at the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest.

The Mexican spotted owl, a mottled brown bird whose U.S. territory spans New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of southern Utah and Colorado, was first listed as a threatened species in 1993 — largely because of concerns logging was threatening the bird’s habitat.

Twenty-five years later, those concerns have shifted from timber harvest to wildfire.

“I think the biggest concern, aside from the unknowns, is that the scale of burn size in their habitat, mixed conifer, is increasing,” said Todd Schulke, who oversees the forest protection program for the Center for Biological Diversity headquartered in Tucson, Ariz.

Schulke pointed to areas of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, scorched during the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire of 2012, as an example.

“It’s for sure drought, there’s no question about that,” Schulke said of fires that are growing larger and hotter. “Whether we’re starting to see the effects of climate change? People are starting to think so.”

The increasing spread and severity of fires in spotted owl habitats has raised alarm, according to the authors of a paper on the birds published by Northern Arizona University researchers and U.S. Forest Service scientists in the journal Fire Ecology.

But “considerable uncertainty remains,” about the long-term effects severe wildfire can have on the birds, the paper adds, noting that people often fall into two camps when it comes to discussing what’s best for the owls.

One side argues in favor of techniques like forest thinning and prescribed burns to help reduce fire risk, the paper says. The other contends birds have adapted to the fires, and that overmanaging the forest does more to damage owl habitat.

“We really don’t know whether wildfire is going to be the worst thing for the owl, or if going around manipulating its habitat is the worst thing for the owl,” said Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.

Bird argues that cutting trees larger than 9 inches in diameter is a bad idea in owl habitats. They like the forest dense and cool, with a lot of canopy cover, he said.

For his part, Burton sees the potential for a balance. While Forest Service employees might not thin larger trees in areas designated for owl protection, he said, thinning outside those areas could help create more hunting ground for owls and reduce the chance a fire spreads along the treetops to the places where owls actually live.

“We’ve evolved in how we manage our forests,” Burton said. “Our thinning considers the larger ecosystem.”

When it comes to these birds, research is underway.

There’s no definitive number on how many Mexican spotted owls live in New Mexico, Burton said. But members of the U.S. Forest Service across the Southwest have been studying the birds to get an idea of ongoing population trends. Bird, from Defenders of Wildlife, is hopeful ongoing research in Arizona will also help bring closure to some of the other questions — like how owls respond to different types of forest management in or near their habitat.

Contact Sami Edge at 505-986-3055 or sedge@sfnewmexican.com.