Recent court order hurts owls, humans

A pair of Mexican spotted owl fledglings at Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Courtesy National Park Service

The recent ruling in U.S. District Court over forest thinning and Mexican spotted owl protections (“Ruling on owl halts logging in Southwest,” Sept. 20; “Forest Service resumes firewood permits,” Oct. 2) is unfortunate for both owls and humans.

It is true that we need to invest in monitoring to better inform recovery plans for threatened species like the Mexican spotted owl. However, we know from research on a related species, the California spotted owl, that the same large, hot wildfires that threaten human society can also reduce habitat for these old-forest species.

A Mexican spotted owl preferentially nests in large trees that occur in forests with complex structure. Research on the California spotted owl found that the cover of large, old trees best predicted habitat. These two owls, which are related, have similar habitat requirements that are the type of forest conditions that occur when we restore frequent fire.

Frequent fire leads to highly variable conditions that provide a range of habitat types. When we started putting fires out 100 years ago, we simplified Southwestern forests. Unfortunately, undoing the problems we have created with fire suppression is not as simple as just allowing forests to burn again.

Fire is not a precision instrument. Sometimes forest managers have to mechanically thin small trees to create conditions where they can light prescribed fires or manage natural ignitions to restore the right kind of fire to our forests. Since mechanical thinning is a precision instrument, we can protect large, old trees and exclude known owl locations from treatment. We do need better monitoring data to determine how owls are responding to changes in our forests. However, preventing management that reduces large, hot wildfires in the name of protecting the owl poses risks to owls.

Matthew Hurteau is a forest and fire ecologist. He lives in Albuquerque.

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