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Managing emerging threats to spotted owls


Ho Yi Wan
Christina D. Vojta



Publication type:

Scientific Journal (JRNL)

Primary Station(s):

Rocky Mountain Research Station


The Journal of Wildlife Management. 82(4): 682-697.


The 3 spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) subspecies in North America (i.e., northern spotted owl [S. o. caurina], California spotted owl [S. o. occidentalis], Mexican spotted owl [S. o. lucida]) have all experienced population declines over the past century due to habitat loss and fragmentation from logging. Now, the emerging influences of climate change, high-severity fire, and barred owl (Strix varia) invasion also appear to be synergistically and differentially affecting population trends of each subspecies. Our objective was to review the existing literature on the spotted owl to describe historical and emerging threats and whether those threats have been adequately examined for each subspecies. Using 527 publications from a Web of Science search of the literature from 1900-2015, we statistically evaluated the emphasis placed on each subspecies regarding 4 influences: mechanical tree removal, fire, climate change, and barred owl invasion. There were 98 papers that explicitly examined the effects of ≥1 of these influences. Most of these papers were focused on the northern spotted owl, and for all 3 subspecies, most papers examined short-term effects only. We used our results to identify significant information gaps relative to historical and emerging threats. Commercial timber harvesting remains a potential threat for all 3 spotted owl subspecies, but effects from forest thinning may be increasing because of the heightened emphasis on fuels reduction and forest restoration treatments on public lands. Owl response to mechanical tree removal, especially forest thinning, remains understudied. Climate change also may threaten all 3 subspecies. Changes in climate likely affect survival and reproduction of spotted owls and their prey, and alter habitat availability by affecting disturbance regimes and vegetation composition and succession, but little empirical information is available describing specific responses to climate change. The literature on response to high-severity fire is sparse for some subspecies, primarily short-term in nature, and not consistent. Barred owl invasion is a major threat to the northern spotted owl and the California spotted owl but does not currently threaten the Mexican spotted owl. Rigorous research on the response of spotted owls to all factors influencing population change, particularly for the Mexican spotted owl, is needed. The most useful information for predicting owl response to these threats stems primarily from long-term studies of owl demography. The lack of such studies within the range of the Mexican spotted owl greatly limits our understanding of its population dynamics and our ability to predict the effects of various threats on Mexican spotted owl populations. For all 3 subspecies, we encourage long-term studies of their responses to threats, using uniquely marked owls across large spatial extents to account for spatiotemporal variability in ecological conditions within and among subspecies.


Wan, Ho Yi; Ganey, Joseph L.; Vojta, Christina D.; Cushman, Samuel A. 2018. Managing emerging threats to spotted owls. The Journal of Wildlife Management. 82(4): 682-697.


Publication Notes

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  • This article was written and prepared by U.S. Government employees on official time, and is therefore in the public domain.