Northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina) have received intense research and management interest since their listing as a threatened species by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990. For example, public and private forest managers in the Pacific Northwest, USA, conduct surveys to determine presence or absence of spotted owls prior to timber harvest operations. However, although recently developed statistical methods have been applied to presence–absence data collected during research surveys, the effectiveness of operational surveys for detecting spotted owls and evaluating site occupancy dynamics is not known. We used spotted owl survey data collected from 1995 to 2009 on a study area in interior northern California, USA, to evaluate competing occupancy models from Program PRESENCE using Akaike's Information Criterion (AIC). During 1,282 individual surveys, we recorded 480 spotted owl detections (37.4%) and 13 barred owl (1.0%) detections. Average per visit detection probability (85% CL) for single and paired spotted owls was 0.93 (0.90–0.96) for informed daytime, stand-based searches and 0.47 (0.43–0.51) for nighttime, station-based surveys (estimated from the best model); the average per visit detection probability from the null model was 0.67 (0.64–0.70). Average pair-only detection probabilities were 0.86 (0.81–0.90) for informed daytime, stand-based searches and 0.23 (0.18–0.29) for nighttime, station-based surveys; the average per visit detection probability from the null model was 0.63 (0.58–0.68). Site occupancy for any owl declined from 0.81 (0.59–0.93) in 1995 to 0.50 (0.39–0.60) in 2009; pair occupancy declined from 0.75 (0.56–0.87) to 0.46 (0.31–0.61). Our results suggest that a combination of 1 informed stand and 2 station-based operational surveys can support determinations of spotted owl site status (either a single or a pair) at desired levels of confidence. However, our information was collected in an area where barred owls were rarely detected. Surveys conducted in areas that support well-established barred owl populations are likely to be less effective for determining presence or absence of spotted owls and may require more surveys and/or different survey methods to determine site status with confidence. © 2012 The Wildlife Society.