Fanning the Flames of Change

A dark sky blanketed the Appalachian mountain tops with an air so dense it seemed to suffocate sound itself. Suddenly, a harsh scream pierced the night sky, sending shivers down my spine.

I was 11 or 12 years old, searching for frogs and salamanders deep within the Appalachian Mountains. Disoriented, my mind wandered for the most logical explanation. An axe murderer? The Chupacabra? Whew, relief washed over me as my mother assured me it was just the haunting cry of a Barn Owl.

In many cultures, owls have long been revered as messengers, whose silent flight and penetrating gaze seem to conceal many secrets about the natural world. From the sun-scorched deserts of Africa, to the rolling prairies of North America and the icy expanse of the Arctic tundra, these enigmatic creatures have been woven into the very tapestry of human folklore and legend. Yet beyond their mystical allure lies a pressing question: what can owls tell us about our changing planet, and can these clues help us better manage their habitats to sustain populations for generations to come?

A Mexican Spotted Owl perched in an evergreen tree. Photo by Quetzal Gallagher

This question formed the foundation of a recent collaborative investigation between the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, recently published in the journal of Fire Ecology. With a wealth of data drawn from long-term monitoring efforts across U.S. Forest Service managed lands in Arizona and New Mexico, Gavin Jones, the study’s lead author and Research Ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, alongside a team of scientists, including two researchers from Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, set out to explore the consequences of recent and historical wildfire activity on Mexican Spotted Owl population status and persistence.

The Mexican Spotted Owl is the smallest nocturnal subspecies of spotted owl, but is the fourth largest owl in North America. This owl inhabits forested mountains and canyonlands from Utah to Mexico, and was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993. At the time, the primary threat to Mexican Spotted Owls was habitat loss resulting from timber harvest. Now, amidst a rapidly changing climate, the risk of catastrophic wildfires threaten western forests and the species that depend on them.

While some evidence suggests Mexican Spotted Owls may have adapted to the frequent, low-intensity fires once common in western forests, long periods of fire suppression, coupled with a warmer and drier climate, has catalyzed a shift towards larger and more severe fires than we’ve experienced in the past. These ‘megafires’ can sometimes lead to tree regeneration failure, and in extreme cases, transition to non-forested ecosystems. This can have devastating consequences for species, like the Mexican Spotted Owl, that call these forests home. Therefore, when designing science-informed policy and management recommendations to increase western forest resilience to increasing wildfire risks, a critical element of success relies on our understanding of how species of conservation concern respond to shifting fire regimes.

Our seasonal Mexican Spotted Owl field crew surveying a roosting Mexican Spotted Owl during training.

To address this, the team of researchers relied on data from a long-term Mexican Spotted Owl program administered by Bird Conservancy of the Rockies in collaboration with the Southwestern Region of the U.S. Forest Service. This partnership began in 2014 and was initially designed to monitor long-term trends in owl occurrence and persistence throughout the region. Read more about the program and the people behind the data.

The research team looked at mated owl pairs and asked whether the owl pairs were more likely to occur and persist in areas with high frequency and low-severity fires, characteristic of historical fire regimes in the region, relative to areas that experienced more extensive high-severity fires between 2015 and 2022. To quantify the fire dynamics at each monitoring site, they relied on satellite data sourced from the ‘Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity’ interagency program. This program offers consistent, comprehensive mapping of burn severity and extent of large fires across the U.S. from 1984 to present.

A pair of Mexican Spotted Owls perched in an evergreen tree. Photo by Quetzal Gallagher

The findings revealed a compelling pattern: owl pairs exhibited a higher likelihood of presence at sites with a history of more frequent, less severe fires in the decades preceding the study. However, when looking at sites exposed to severe fires in the past, the researchers found that owl pairs were notably less inclined to maintain residency in such areas. This observation underscores a troubling reality: the trend towards increasingly extensive and severe fires, worsened by the effects of climate change, poses a significant threat to conservation and recovery efforts aimed at safeguarding the Mexican Spotted Owl populations for future generations.

On the bright side, the findings offer a glimmer of hope. The results of this study indicate that restoring frequent-fire regimes characteristic of many southwestern U.S. forests, coupled with strategic fuels reduction efforts, could help mitigate the effects of catastrophic wildfires that threaten infrastructure, livelihoods and wildlife alike. This aligns with previous Bird Conservancy research, emphasizing the efficacy of broad-scale fuels reduction efforts aimed at bolstering forest resilience, which in turn, can yield wide-ranging benefits for forest bird communities across the southwestern U.S.

It’s been many years and thousands of miles from where I first heard the haunting shriek of the Barn Owl. Although a lot has changed, I can’t help but wonder if the eerie call I heard all those years ago echoes the urgent warning that Mexican Spotted Owls are telling us today: “the world is changing, and we need your help.”

Chris Latimer is the Research Director for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies