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Study Looks Into Nesting Habitats of Threatened Mexican Spotted Owls

Photo of A pair of Mexican spotted owls watches a live mouse on the forest floor.  Spotted owl nests typically are well hidden and difficult to locate.  Nesting owls often take captured prey to the nest site, allowing scientists to locate the nest. USDA Forest ServiceA pair of Mexican spotted owls watches a live mouse on the forest floor. Spotted owl nests typically are well hidden and difficult to locate. Nesting owls often take captured prey to the nest site, allowing scientists to locate the nest. USDA Forest ServiceSnapshot : Scientists worked with land managers to study nesting habitats of the Mexican spotted owl in New Mexico. Findings provide a template for preserving owl habitat and protecting property while creating more resilient landscapes.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Ganey, Joseph L.  
Research Location : South-cental New Mexico
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2013
Highlight ID : 554

Summary

Decades of fire suppression altered the structure and species composition of many southwestern forests. Changes are particularly pronounced in drier forest types shaped by frequent fire, resulting in an increase in numbers of trees, snags, down logs, and dense understories that create ladder fuels that carry fires from the forest floor to the canopy. Canopies also are relatively continuous across the landscape, facilitating the spread of crown fires into wetter forests that historically did not burn as frequently. Consequently, vast areas now are vulnerable to crown fires. Restoration activities include thinning small understory trees and retaining shade-tolerant, fire-resistant species. Protecting habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl sometimes is perceived as conflicting with such activities, because the owl frequently nests in closed-canopy forests with shade-tolerant species and numerous snags, or standing dead trees, and logs. To better understand how to integrate management of Mexican spotted owl habitat with forest restoration, Forest Service scientists worked in cooperation with land managers to study nesting habitat used by this owl in the Sacramento Mountains of south-central New Mexico. The area features developed private property adjacent to forested public lands occupied by Mexican spotted owls, prompting concerns over fire risk in this wildland urban interface. Studies show that most owls in the Sacramento Mountains nest in mixed-conifer forests, with most nests located in large white fir or Douglas-fir trees or snags. Nest sites feature denser canopies, more large trees, and more large white fir trees than randomly located sites within their range, and mostly located on the lower portions of north- or east-facing slopes. Collectively, results indicate that owls nest in patches of wetter mixed-conifer forest. These patches, historically not structured by frequent fires, remain within their natural range of variability and do not urgently require restoration. However, these patches are vulnerable today because they occur in fire-prone landscapes. Scientists believe that restoration activities targeting drier forest types, especially on ridgetops and upper slopes, effectively mitigate landscape-scale fire risk while largely avoiding the wetter habitat patches preferred by nesting Mexican spotted owls. Findings indicate that conflicts between maintaining owl nesting habitat and forest restoration may be more perceived than real. Managers can integrate protection of nesting habitat for Mexican spotted owls with landscape-scale restoration objectives, providing a template for preserving owl habitat and protecting property while creating more resilient landscapes. For additional information, see Nesting Habitat of Mexican Spotted Owls in the Sacramento Mountains, New Mexico, in Journal of Wildlife Management, 77(7): 1426-1435, and http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/44335.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • USFS Region 3
  • USFWS

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