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How do wildfires and forest restoration efforts affect spotted owls?

Date: February 06, 2018

Conflicting perspectives highlight the need for additional research


The spotted owl (Strix occidentalis), a threatened species in the western United States, requires mature forests with high canopy cover for nesting; these forests are subject to wildfires, including high-severity fires. Some research suggests that fuels reduction in high canopy forest can reduce risk of high-severity wildfire and therefore help protect owl habitat. Opposing research states that because high-severity fires have always occurred in high-canopy forests, fuels reduction treatment can actually damage owl habitat. Management decisions for owl habitat could impact vast areas of forested lands. 

A Mexican spotted owl (photo by Darrell. L. Apprill).
A Mexican spotted owl (photo by Darrell. L. Apprill).


This literature review evaluates reliability of the limited, existing data regarding wildfire and forest restoration impacts on spotted owls, postulates why there is uncertainty, and recommends topics for further study.

Study areas included habitat for the three subspecies of spotted owl, ranging from moist forests to dry, rocky canyonlands. Some variation among studies may simply reflect differences between geography. Many studies only evaluated owl occupancy rate, or reproduction, and therefore do not evaluate whether turnover within habitats is high – that would require monitoring marked owls. These are just two examples of the complications involved in the literature evaluation.

Key Findings

Results of the literature review:

  • Only one study presented long-term data on owls in burned areas; most studies occurred less than four years post-fire.
  • Data from different studies show mixed responses of spotted owls to fire, but suggest that the effects of increasing numbers of high-severity wildfires could be significant throughout the range of all three subspecies.
  • Forest managers should consider wider use of managed fire to reduce risk of high-severity burns, although use of controlled burns has potential risks to habitat.

The debate over owls, wildfire, and managed forest restoration is not resolved; forest fuels reduction, especially, needs more evaluation.

Featured Publications

Ganey, J. L., H. Y. Wan, S. A. Cushman, and C. D. Vojta. 2017. Conflicting perspectives on spotted owls, wildfire, and forest restoration. Fire Ecology 13(3). Doi: 10.4996/fireecology.130318020

Principal Investigators: 
External Partners: 
Ho Yi Wan, School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, Northern Arizona University
Christina D. Vojta, Landscape Conservation Initiative
Research Location: 
Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington