Preserving a threatened species

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Serra Hoagland researches ways to save the Mexican Spotted Owl.

Serra Hoagland, a PhD student in forestry, is merging Native American land management techniques with Western science in her research focused on preserving the Mexican Spotted Owl. The species has been listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service since 1993.

One of the biggest threats the owls are facing is an increasing severity of wildfire in their habitat.

That’s where Hoagland’s research comes in. She has been studying owl sites on the tribally managed Mescalero Apache forest in New Mexico and comparing them to sites on land the U.S. Forest Service manages.

“We used satellite images to characterize the habitat around owl sites on the reservation compared to adjacent owl sites on the national forest,” she explains. “I found, sure enough, they’re different.”  

Hoagland, who participated in the Indian Forest Management Assessment Team (IFMAT) III, a group of nationally recognized forest scientists and managers who report to Congress on the status of Indian forests, attributes this discrepancy to differences in land management techniques.

 “The Forest Service has been really successful at fire suppression, but in an ecosystem that requires fire, that can then create a dangerous situation for spotted owls,” Hoagland says.  She goes on to explain that Native American forests, however, manage the land so that the risk of wildfire is much lower.

Protecting the owls

Hoagland explains that the owls are threatened by wildfires because the Forest Service is reluctant to perform forest treatments near owl sites, as the treatments may seem harmful to the owls. For example, cutting down trees in owl sites to protect the owls appears counterintuitive.

“Thinning is tough because they nest in those trees, but you also want to reduce the wildfire risk, so we try to achieve that balance,” Hoagland says.

However, Hoagland’s research has shown that the owls will continue to nest in thinned sites because the sites attract more rodents, which serve as a food source for the owls.  This suggests that reducing wildfire risk through techniques such as thinning and prescribed fires will not harm the owl population.

Tribal knowledge meets Western science

Hoagland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, is one of the 2.2 percent of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) students in the country who are Native American.

She explains the wisdom of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) can offer a longer-term view of wildfire risk reduction and other ecological issues that may provide vital clues to optimal forest management techniques.

“It’s exciting working with the tribes, because they’ve maintained that forest health and that balance in the forest,” says Hoagland. “Not only do those areas have low fire risk, but they also support a healthy owl population. It makes for a really unique case study.”