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Mexican Spotted Owls Still Thriving In Area Burned By Museum Fire

Shaula Hedwall

The Museum Fire burned nearly two thousand acres north of Flagstaff last July. The area is home to a federally threatened species, the Mexican Spotted Owl, and the fire affected three patches of habitat set aside for them, called Protected Activity Centers. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with two wildlife biologists about how the owls are doing now, Shaula Hedwall of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Julia Camps of the Coconino National Forest.

Tell me before the Museum Fire happened, how many Mexican Spotted Owls were up in that area?

Shaula Hedwall: Prior to the Museum Fire, we were aware within the Museum Fire footprint of at least three territories that occurred there, so anywhere to three to six Mexican Spotted Owls, depending on whether they’re paired up or not in a given year.

And Julia, the area that the fire burned is part of a Protected Activity Center, is that right?

Julia Camp: Yeah, so it actually burned into portions of three PACS, so the three that Shaula mentioned. It was pieces of two and a very decent sized chunk of one of them.

So it’s been a year since that fire, tell me how the owls are doing now.

Shaula Hedwall: We have located two of the three pairs in the Museum Fire footprint and are still conducting protocol surveys to locate the third pair. It is good news, particularly as Julia mentioned, the one Protected Activity Center that had a larger chunk of it that burned at high severity, those birds are there and are actually nesting.

Julia maybe this is a question for you: how do you determine an area is going to be good habitat for a Mexican Spotted Owl? What are you looking for?

Julia Camp: In this case it’s a lot of structure… having those older mature trees with all the branches and the cover they provide. They really do key in on the witches brooms at lot of times for nest structures, so that’s a big thing too.

So talk to me about how the habitat has changed for these owls since the fire went through.

Credit Shaula Hedwall
Post-Museum Fire in one of the Protected Activity Centers

Shaula Hedwall: In the short term at least what the fire does do is provide a lot of recycling and nutrients, and so one of the reasons the birds are likely able to be successful this year in terms of nesting, is prey habitat availability—so habitat their food source eats, wood rats, mice, is really up, and so they’ve got a lot of food available to feed themselves and any young that they successfully fledge… Right now the birds are available to use the same nest core area they’ve been using the last several years, but we do have concerns long term for the high severity fire patches as to how long those areas will continue to provide habitat.

Julia Camp: What will happen over time, even if some of those trees maybe have a little green on them, or had it after the fire, they’ll all start to die now and then they’ll start to fall down over time. What will end up happening, obviously they’ll be nothing from the perching and roosting standpoint, and then we’ll have a whole bunch more fuel on the ground again. That’s part of what Shaula was getting at when she was saying we have those concerns of the future health. Not only did we lose the trees and the structure but we also now have a bit of a problem with a little more fuel on the ground than we’d like.

Long term what kind of plan is there for revegetating the area or other work that might help improve or maintain that habitat?

Shaula Hedwall: Revegetation is not necessarily an issue. We’ll will lose existing tree canopy and that’s just going to take long time to come back, particularly for a species like the Mexican Spotted Owl that really wants that higher canopy cover that Julia was describing earlier. But for other species in some of those areas—bluebirds, deer—the forage and herbaceous species… are providing lots of great habitat for those species. There’s a diversity of habitat that going to occur as a result of the fire.

Julia Camp: That area in general receives a fair amount of moisture, and so…we’d expected to get good regeneration of trees and all vegetation… It’s something we’ll monitor, but to rush out right now and not give the landscape the time to recover would be a mistake. It is adapted to fire and should be able to respond.

Julia Camp and Shaula Hedwall, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Thank you.

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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