Northern spotted owls living in central Oregon are scrappier than their westside counterparts. They have to search harder for food, and habitat isn’t as plum as the lush forests on the other side of the Cascade Mountains.
Laurie Turner, a forest wildlife biologist for the Deschutes National Forest, said in this sort of fringe habitat, spotted owls need more space, especially breeding pairs.
“You have greater threats of predation, starvation. Trying to get the young to disperse into adjacent habitats can be a problem, too, if we don't have enough habitat or if there are large areas where there is no habitat,” Turner said.
That's a problem here in Central Oregon.
Since 2003, wildfires have burned up to 30,000 acres of habitat in the Deschutes National Forest, which has destroyed or fragmented much of the area’s best spotted owl habitat.
It’s also helped cause the decline of spotted owls throughout the 397,000-acre Sisters Ranger District, which is part of the Deschutes National Forest.
There were 27 breeding pairs on the Sisters district in 1998. Then several large wildfires swept through.
“We knew we had several viable breeding pairs on the district after the fires. We might have had one or two breeding pairs that hung on for a couple more years. But eventually they kind of blinked out,” Turner said.
The Sisters Ranger District lost 21 breeding pairs after the fires. After the wildfires of 2014, rangers couldn’t find any.
Northern spotted owls were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, mainly because of loss of habitat from logging.
"Since then, timber harvest is still a factor, but it's not as great a threat as habitat loss due to fire and things like the barred owl," Turner said.
The problem, say some conservation groups, hinges on the lack of old growth forests in the Cascades – some of the best habitat for spotted owls.
Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild, said old-growth forests could better handle fires that historically burned before they were logged and replanted.
“We’ve taken so much of the old growth out, that now when a fire happens and you lose another 1,000 acres or 2,000 acres, 100 years ago that was not big deal, today, that could be catastrophic,” Pedery said.
But Pedery said logging to try to control fire is also a threat to spotted owls.
"There's this problem of trying to get an intersection between these projects and where the owls are and where there might be a fire. If you've got a species that generally does not do well in the presence of aggressive logging, trying to help it through aggressive logging in the anticipation that there might be a fire in this area -- you can see there's a sort of logical problem that emerges," Pedery said.
In Washington’s East Cascades spotted owls have also lost habitat from fires, although not to such an extent as near Sisters, said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest.
There, conservationists are restoring old trees and snags outside spotted owl habitat – in hopes that they’ll have more options if fires destroy preferred habitat in the future.
Back on Central Washington's Sisters Ranger District Laurie Turner said it’s going to be several hundred years before the lost owl habitat can be completely restored. Turner said that’s especially worrisome because spotted owls don’t reproduce that often. They also have fairly low survival rates.
“You start wiping out quality habitat, you just make it that much harder for them to persist on the landscape,” she said.