Effects of forest management on California Spotted Owls: implications for reducing wildfire risk in fire-prone forests

Authors


  • Corresponding Editor: J. D. Wiens.

Abstract

Management of many North American forests is challenged by the need to balance the potentially competing objectives of reducing risks posed by high-severity wildfires and protecting threatened species. In the Sierra Nevada, California, concern about high-severity fires has increased in recent decades but uncertainty exists over the effects of fuel-reduction treatments on species associated with older forests, such as the California Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis). Here, we assessed the effects of forest conditions, fuel reductions, and wildfire on a declining population of Spotted Owls in the central Sierra Nevada using 20 years of demographic data collected at 74 Spotted Owl territories. Adult survival and territory colonization probabilities were relatively high, while territory extinction probability was relatively low, especially in territories that had relatively large amounts of high canopy cover (≥70%) forest. Reproduction was negatively associated with the area of medium-intensity timber harvests characteristic of proposed fuel treatments. Our results also suggested that the amount of edge between older forests and shrub/sapling vegetation and increased habitat heterogeneity may positively influence demographic rates of Spotted Owls. Finally, high-severity fire negatively influenced the probability of territory colonization. Despite correlations between owl demographic rates and several habitat variables, life stage simulation (sensitivity) analyses indicated that the amount of forest with high canopy cover was the primary driver of population growth and equilibrium occupancy at the scale of individual territories. Greater than 90% of medium-intensity harvests converted high-canopy-cover forests into lower-canopy-cover vegetation classes, suggesting that landscape-scale fuel treatments in such stands could have short-term negative impacts on populations of California Spotted Owls. Moreover, high-canopy-cover forests declined by an average of 7.4% across territories during our study, suggesting that habitat loss could have contributed to declines in abundance and territory occupancy. We recommend that managers consider the existing amount and spatial distribution of high-canopy forest before implementing fuel treatments within an owl territory, and that treatments be accompanied by a rigorous monitoring program.

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