Magazine article American Forests

The Ponderosa and the Flammulated

Magazine article American Forests

The Ponderosa and the Flammulated

Article excerpt

Needed now: more data on one of the nation's most threatened forest types and a little-known bird that lives there.

NEARLY EVERYONE old enough to watch TV is familiar with the debate over the endangered spotted owl and the remaining old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. In the Rocky Mountain region, too, there are old-growth forests in danger of disappearing, and these forests aren't receiving nearly the publicity claimed by those in Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska. Few people have noticed that old-growth ponderosa pine is disappearing at an alarming rate. Only recently have most forest managers begun taking stock of it, and they've discovered that in many areas there is virtually no old-growth ponderosa left. It is by far the most endangered forest type in the Rocky Mountain West, and perhaps in the entire country.

Old-growth ponderosa forests appear to have little in common with Pacific rainforests, but old-growth ponderosa, like its more verdant relative, is home to an owl species that appears to be dependent upon it. Until 13 years ago, little if any research had been done on flammulated owls; just over a century ago the species was unknown to science. No one knew what kind of habitat the bird depended on for survival, whether it was a year-round resident or migratory, or even what prey species it depended upon.

In 1979, Dr. Richard Reynolds, working at the Manitou Experimental Forest in Colorado's Front Range, began an extensive study of flammulated owls. Reynolds and his assistant, Brian Linkhart, concluded that flammulated owls have remained a mystery for so long because they are so small and because they are strictly nocturnal.

Just over six inches long, the flammulated owl is the smallest of the screech owls. Reynolds and Linkhart were immediately captivated. Over the next 13 years they banded and weighed more than 200 birds, fitted many with radio transmitters, and spent countless hours in the dark observing them.

When motionless, flammulated owls are nearly invisible, and with good reason. Accipiters, which have keen eyesight, are one of the owl's biggest predators; Reynolds and Linkhart retrieved several transmitters from the nests of sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks. At night a flammulated owl's biggest worry is other owls.

Reynold's and Linkhart's base of operations was an experimental forest that has large areas of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir older than 200 years. This ecosystem, largely overlooked in studies of flora and fauna diversity, has been decimated by civilization.

"There is almost no old-growth ponderosa left in our jurisdiction," says Dennis Lowry, wildlife biologist for Arapaho/Roosevelt National Forest. "Of 194,000 acres of ponderosa pine on Arapaho/Roosevelt, only 337 acres are old-growth. That's 0.2 percent. Our inventory is not yet complete, but we don't expect those figures to change significantly. Colorado's other national forests are pretty much in the same boat."

Claudia Regan, an ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, says, "Old-growth ponderosa is unquestionably the most endangered forest-habitat type in the Rocky Mountain West." She had trouble locating stands of it that might serve as study areas. It's obvious that forest managers must try to balance the interests of industry, recreation, and wildlife in these areas with little understanding of the ecosystem's makeup.

Ponderosa pine is one of the West's most commercially valuable trees. These forests occur at relatively low elevations that often remain snow-free for much of the year, making them accessible all year. More than a century ago the timber industry discovered their potential value.

Property owners, too, have discovered the ponderosa forests in recent years as they move away from the city. With the exception of a few mountain parks, the once-extensive old-growth ponderosa forests of Colorado's Front Range are now almost entirely housing developments. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.