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An aerial view over areas in the Santiam Canyon burned by the wildfires in September including Fishermen’s Bend, Gates and Mill City

Salem Statesman Journal

SALEM, Ore. — The Northern Spotted Owl was already struggling before 2020. 

But this year’s Labor Day wildfires brought another major blow to the iconic but fragile population of birds, pushing them closer to the “extinction vortex,” according to top researcher Damon Lesmeister. 

Wildfires kicked up on powerful east winds Sept. 7 and burned across almost a million acres (about 1,560 square miles) of forest in Western Oregon. 

All totaled, the fires burned 360,000 acres (over 560 square miles) of suitable nesting and roosting spotted owl habitat in Oregon. Of that, about 194,000 acres (over 300 square miles) are no longer considered viable for the birds, according to U.S. Forest Service data.  

“These wildfires were very impactful on spotted owls,” said Lesmeister, the lead researcher on spotted owls for the Forest Service. “The sad truth is that the birds caught in the fire likely didn’t survive — it was just moving too fast. So there will be a lot of direct mortality.

A northern spotted owl named Obsidian by U.S. Forest Service employees sits in a tree in the Deschutes National Forest near Camp Sherman, Oregon in 2003. (Photo: Don Ryan / AP file)

“It will take time to sort out the exact impact to the population, but it’s significant just because their numbers were already declining pretty rapidly.” 

Northern Spotted Owls occupied an estimated 14,000 territories across the Pacific Northwest in 1993, three years after they were listed by the federal Endangered Species Act. Today, it’s estimated they occupy just 3,000 territories — meaning a single male or breeding pair inhabit each territory. 

Lesmeister said even 3,000 is optimistic based on his field studies, which use digital audio recorders spread across the forest to locate and track owls in Oregon’s forests.

Wildfires become third reason for decline in spotted owls

Two things have fueled the decline, he said: the invasion of barred owls overtaking nesting sites and habitat fragmentation. 

But wildfires have become a third and potentially devastating stress on spotted owl populations, particularly when they burn as hot as they did this year, he said.

This year’s fires were rare in size and power, torching even old-growth temperate rainforest that might burn only once every few centuries. They’re the very places spotted owls depend on. 

“We have so few animals right now that a big loss from these fires could become destabilizing on the population as a whole,” Lesmeister said. “Indications are that they’re already in the extinction vortex in some places, and headed there in others. They’re long-lived birds and will continue to hang on for a while, but we’re not getting the level of recruitment into the population to sustain them.” 

Not everybody agrees that wildfires are fueling a spotted owl decline, and argue wildfire can improve habitat in the long-term. 

“We have so few animals right now that a