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Spotted Owls Using Burned Sierra Forest Slated for Logging

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A California spotted owl in Tahoe National Forest | Photo: Julio Mulero/Flickr/Creative Commons License

More than 250,000 acres of Sierra Nevada forest land burned in the 2013 Rim Fire is turning out to be pretty good habitat for California spotted owls, and a group of wildlife protection organizations is asking the U.S. Forest Service to rethink plans to log the burned areas.

In the spring and summer of this year, USFS biologists found 33 breeding pairs of the diminutive owls in forests burned by the Rim Fire, along with six single owls. Most of the owls found were on land slated for salvage logging in the USFS's "Rim Fire Recovery" Project. The logging project would take out trees on about 30,000 acres of land, making it one of the largest salvage logging operations in USFS history.

USFS has long held that forest fires threaten owls, and that salvage logging is necessary to encourage regrowth of healthy trees that provide owl habitat. But in a letter sent to USFS on Thursday, the groups are saying USFS's position is based on obsolete science, and that spotted owls may actually prefer burned forests for hunting.

The groups signing the letter -- Wild Nature Institute, the John Muir Project, and the Center For Biological Diversity -- are calling on USFS to take steps to protect the owls, potentially including avoiding cutting trees within a mile and a half of nesting and roosting sites used by the owls.

"I'm not surprised that so many spotted owls are living in the Rim fire area," said Monica Bond, principal scientist for the Wild Nature Institute. "Recent science and survey results like those from the Rim fire are repudiating the old, outdated assumption that fire is bad for owls. Logging has always been the real danger to spotted owls, not fire."

"The Rim Fire area is teeming with wildlife that thrives in burned forests, including these spotted owls living right in the same forests the government wants to cut down," said Justin Augustine with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We hope the Forest Service heeds the new data and drastically changes its approach so these owls get the protections they need and deserve."

The center and the John Muir Project sued USFS in July over salvage logging on two other 2013 fire sites, charging that those logging plans would harm the California spotted owl, along with other species such as the black-backed woodpecker.

The California spotted owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis) is one of three subspecies of spotted owl that lives in conifer forests of the West. Its close relative the northern spotted owl achieved a great deal of press attention in the 1990s during conflicts over logging in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Northern spotted owls range from Marin County northward to British Columbia, while the California spotted owl's territory runs from the southern Cascades southward through the Sierra Nevada, with a few isolated populations in the Coast Ranges south of San Francisco Bay.

A third subspecies, the Mexican spotted owl, ranges from the Rocky Mountains in Utah to central Mexico. Both the northern and Mexican subspecies are listed as Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Despite several attempts to add the California spotted owl to the ESA list as well, it enjoys no such protection.

The USFS does regard the California spotted owl as a "Sensitive Species," however, and is at least in theory committed to protect the subspecies wherever possible.

The agency may need to rethink its scientific approach to do so, it would seem. California spotted owls have long been reported as declining in numbers on USFS-managed lands, where standard operating procedure is to approve salvage logging on burned areas. In places like Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, however, where the National Park Service removes only those burned trees that pose a direct threat to visitor safety and otherwise leaves forests alone to regenerate naturally post-fire, California spotted owl numbers are stable.

As we've reported here before, much of the land slated for logging in the Rim Fire Recovery Project is made up of what forest ecologists call "complex early seral forest," a bit of jargon that simply means a patchwork of forest at different stages of recovery from fire. After more than a century of fire suppression and salvage logging, that habitat is one of the rarest in the Sierra Nevada. And that's bad news for species like the California spotted owl, the black-backed woodpecker, and others that thrive best when a range of different types of habitat are available, including recently burned standing trees that may be dying or dead.

Those standing trees are also potentially lucrative for the USFS, which derives a significant portion of its budget from timber sales.

"If the Forest Service continues with its plans to log the Rim fire area, the many owls residing in the post-fire forest mosaic will be harmed," said research ecologist Dr. Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project. "And let's not forget that the Forest Service has a conflict of interest because it sells the burned trees to private commercial logging corporations and keeps the profits to enhance its budget."

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