By Karl Halupka
Karl is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist at the Central Washington Field Office in Wenatchee. He started surveying spotted owls in 1981.
This summer’s wildfires in the Pacific Northwest have burned an area larger than Rhode Island, nearly a half million acres. Wildfires and subsequent flash floods are normal events in the dry forests typical of the eastern Cascades, but their consequences can be tragic. People can lose everything, including their lives, in these natural events. Wildlife can lose everything in these events, too.
Effects of fire on habitat for spotted owls vary depending on a wildfire’s burn severity. Photo by USFWS
The northern spotted owl is one wildlife species that lives in our dry forests and has a lot to lose from wildfire. Because this iconic owl is associated with older forests and how we manage them, it is one of the most intensively studied birds in the world. Research on this owl includes investigations into how they respond to wildfires. Scientists learn about how wildfires affect spotted owls by tracking owls equipped with small radio transmitters, or relocating owls marked with leg bands by imitating the owl’s calls and getting them to call back.
Wildfires can affect spotted owls directly, by exposing individuals to heat and smoke, or indirectly by changing their habitat. The severity of direct effects from fires is influenced by an owl’s age and mobility and whether it is nesting. Young owls that aren’t yet able to fly can’t get away from smoke and heat from fires, sometimes resulting in deaths of young owls during fires.