Historical northern spotted owl habitat and old-growth dry forests maintained by mixed-severity wildfires

TitleHistorical northern spotted owl habitat and old-growth dry forests maintained by mixed-severity wildfires
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsBaker, WL
JournalLandscape Ecology
Start Page655
Keywordsfuels and fuel treatments, technical reports and journal articles

Context: Reconstructing historical habitat could help reverse declining animal populations, but detailed, spatially comprehensive data are rare. For example, habitat for the federally threatened Northern spotted owl (NSO; Strix occidentalis caurina) was thought historically rare because low-severity fires kept forests open and habitat restricted to fire refugia, but spatial historical data are lacking. Objectives: Here I use public land-surveys to spatially reconstruct NSO habitat and old-growth forests in dry forests in Oregon's Eastern Cascades in the late-1800s. I used reconstructions of forest structure across about 280,000 ha, including 9,605 tree records and 2,180 section-line descriptions. I was able to reconstruct likely NSO nest trees, nest stands, and foraging and roosting habitat, based on modern NSO habitat studies. Results: Historical nest stands, including sufficient nest trees, were predicted across 22-39% and foraging and roosting habitat across 11-68% of the study area, thus neither were rare. More habitat than expected occurred in forests with preceding mixed-severity fires. Early post-fire succession produced foraging and roosting habitat. Mid- to late-succession produced nesting habitat. Late-succession after high-severity fires can also provide NSO habitat. Old-growth forests, covering 76% of study-area forests, also likely link to preceding mixed-severity fires. Conclusions: Mixed- and high-severity fires strongly shaped historical dry forests and produced important components of historical NSO habitat. Focus on short-term loss of nest sites and territories to these fires is mis-directed. Fuel treatments to reduce these natural fires, if successful, would reduce future habitat of the NSO in dry forests.