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Science and Innovations

Forest Service Tests Prescribed Burns in Mexican Spotted Owl Habitat

Eric Brekke, BLM

Forest managers want to restore fire to northern Arizona’s ecosystems, and a tiny owl is a big player in that plan. For the first time, state biologists have designed an experiment to learn how the threatened Mexican Spotted Owl responds to prescribed burns. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

Two dozen firefighters in yellow coats gather for the evening briefing in a patch of forest south of Mormon Lake. Aaron Graeser, the burn boss, tells them: “I know probably most of you guys didn’t sleep much today and that’s just the way it goes, right?”  

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Firefighters gather for a briefing before the night burn

Night burns are not typical, so Graeser emphasizes safety for his crew: “Keep an eye on yourselves, on each other tonight, and let’s go do good things.”

The Mexican Spotted Owl lives here. It’s chocolate-brown bird with white spots and a threatened species protected by federal law. This night burn is designed around the owl’s needs. Andrew Hostad of the Coconino National Forest says that’s a shift in forest management.

“These burn units, because they’re the Mexican Spotted Owl habitat, traditionally fire has been kept out of them for an extended period of time,” Hostad explains.

Because of that old policy, this forest is packed with fuel, primed to blaze in a catastrophic wildfire. That would be bad for owls and a lot of other species, including people who live nearby. Hostad says tonight’s burn is part of an experiment to see if prescribed fire and owls can coexist.

“And so this is definitely different than most of our prescribed burns,” he says. “For their kind of habitat requirements, we want to clean up the over-accumulation of fuel, we don’t want it to burn too intense that we take out some of their habitat.”

Credit Melissa Sevigny
A prescribed burn in owl habitat

Night burns allow for cooler weather and higher humidity to keep the fire from getting too intense. That’ll leave dead snags for owls to nest in and downed logs that shelter mice.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
The smoldering fire is meant to leave a mosaic of burned and unburned areas

Biologist Shaula Hedwall mimics the owl’s call in a series of low notes. She studies the elusive birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Owls are territorial so they typically respond during the breeding season,” she says. “We go back during the day and find them and locate their nests, and then we monitor them through that breeding season to determine if they’re nesting or not nesting.”

Hedwall will check five burned areas and five unburned areas, as well as a few spots slated for mechanical thinning.

Joe Trudeau of the Center for Biological Diversity supports the experiment. “These treatments on the Coconino are one of the first steps in that direction of really taking an objective, science-based approach to this,” he says.

That support is another shift in the spotted owl’s story. The Center and other environmental groups have sued the Forest Service in the past to keep logging out of the owl’s habitat. But Trudeau advocates a careful approach to prescribed burns and mechanical thinning.

Credit National Park Service

“I don’t think we’ll see recovery of the spotted owl in our lifetimes without really returning fire to the landscape in a meaningful way,” Trudeau says.

Prescribed burns in spotted owl habitat will wrap up tonight. Biologists will collect data over the next several years to share with forest managers.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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