The Sierra Forest Voice
Vol. 11, No. 4, December 11, 2018
Plant like Fire Matters: New Views on Reforestation and Resilient Stand Structure in an Increasingly Fire-Prone Landscape
We have been complicit in an intensifying ecological crisis for more than two centuries in California and throughout the West. There are three pillars to this crisis. First is the history of a century and a half of high-grading and clear-cutting larger, old, fire-resilient trees throughout the state. The second is our long and continued battle against natural ignitions and the use of regular burning as practiced by early Native Americans. This resistance has led to levels of fuel loading and dense stands of smaller trees that too often dominate the forested landscapes of California. In recent years, while there has been increasing effort to mechanically treat and prescribe burn forest stands, we are seeing wildfires of uncharacteristic high severity patch size and severity compromising natural landscapes and human communities throughout California.
The third pillar of this human-caused ecological disaster involves activities that occur after fires. Salvage logging and intensive reforestation are standard practice in the Forest Service landscape, as well as on private timber lands. These activities are coming under increasing scrutiny from forest and fire ecologists as we see more of these planting efforts fail during expanded fire seasons, drought, beetle attack, and high intensity fires in California. Finally--and hopefully not too late--the California Legislature has recognized prescribed fire as a valuable restoration tool and has demonstrated the intent to significantly ramp up planned burning. Use of natural ignitions for multiple resource benefits is also increasing on Federal lands throughout the state.
Three new research papers call into question the continuation of intensive, landscape level reforestation efforts post-fire in a faltering social context and a changing climate, or as unstable, homogenous patches in industrial forest lands in southern Oregon. The last paper described below raises the important question regarding the Forest Service’s ability to accept mixed severity fire outcomes as treatments rather than problems, and to apply fire back in these locations quickly to limit the fuel loading from the deadfall.
Tamm Review: Reforestation for resilience in dry western U.S. forests (North et al 2018), published in Forest Ecology and Management, is getting significant attention because it is laying bare the multi-decade failure of the agricultural, tree-farming model that has long been supported within the Forest Service. Historically, the agency has been convinced that frequent-fire ecosystems can be overridden by massive fire suppression efforts, chemicals, and money. North and his twenty-four co-authors clearly call out the failures of this outdated approach while proposing a suite of new recommendations for future reforestation efforts.
Several of the key issues discussed in the paper include “the size, cost, and safety concerns of replanting large areas with standing dead trees and high seedling and sapling mortality rates due to water stress, competing vegetation, and repeat fires that burn young plantations.” While the effects of the standard dense planting practices (or, as we call them—plant, spray and pray) linger until a commercial thinning is possible at roughly 25 years, the most unfortunate outcome of relying on the standard tree-farming model is that it calls for aggressive fire suppression response to any fire in or adjacent to these dense, evenly-spaced stands over several decades of their highly flammable life-span.
North et al.’s three zone approach is an extension of his 2009 work promoting ecological diversity and heterogeneity in treatment designs (See North et al. 2009). The even-spaced agricultural tree-farming model (“pines in lines”) establishes forest conditions that likely never occurred in naturally evolving forest stands with an active low and mixed-severity fire regime. It is no wonder that these outdated planting strategies are so vulnerable to stand replacement from fire, drought, and insect attack.
In zone one, North et al. recommends reliance on natural regeneration from existing, green seed-trees within dispersal distances of 200 meters. Zone two, beyond suggested seed dispersal range, calls for cluster planting and regularly spaced seedlings that vary with microsite and water availability in accessible areas. In the third zone, defined as more remote areas, founder stands are established using small groups of trees strategically planted to seed in surrounding areas. In common with most Forest Service fire managers, the authors call for “early use of prescribed fire” in post-fire landscapes to reduce post-fire fuel loads and build fire resilience in young stands which will be increasingly subjected to more wildfire fire and drought events.
Image above: Using fire to reduce fuels in Angora Fire Plantation
Reviewing forest conditions in the western states (Forest Service Regions 1-6) the North et al. paper offers several socio-economic reasons for the needed change including:
- Younger dense stands support rapid fire spread
- Diversified stand structure (individual trees, clumps and openings or ICO) is more fire and drought resilient
- Areas planted have decreased 30% in recent years and plantations treated to reduce competition have declined 70%
- Areas pre-commercially thinned have decreased 58% (all comparing 1998-2007 to 2008-2017)
- On 26% of the planted areas nothing was done following planting
- The amount of plantation areas thinned and treated for fuels from 1988 to 2012 have declined 20% (65% to 45%)
Reductions in the federal workforce, loss of professional expertise, competing management priorities and decreases in funding are called out by the authors to explain the agency's failure to take the appropriate management actions. It is certainly the case that the dense, flammable stocking conditions that drive astoundingly costly fire suppression and severely limit beneficial fire use are contrary to sound ecosystem management. Even with all the money in the federal Treasury, they are doomed to fail. We will never override nature. It is clearly time for a change in reforestation approaches.
The second paper we are highlighting here is Severe fire weather and intensive forest management increase fire severity in a multi-ownership landscape, by David Zald and Christopher Dunn. The authors examined variables leading to high severity fire effects in Southwestern Oregon on a landscape characterized by “checkerboard” ownership pattern on the federal Bureau of Land Management parcels with a “much greater proportion of older forests” and lands owned and managed by Roseburg Lumber Co. This controversial paper studied how fire weather, fuels, topography, and climate influenced fire severity but also looked at two additional important variables, management practices and ownership patterns, and how they influenced fire severity during the 2013 Douglas Complex wildfire.
Figure below: Checkerboard ownership, federal public lands adjacent to private timber company lands (Roseburg Lumber Co.).
Fire weather remained the most important predictor of fire severity. As we have seen throughout California, when intense winds or fire-created weather kicks in, all bets are off. The two new important factors discussed in the paper were stand age and ownership. The authors’ findings were stunning, but not surprising to firefighters and those who track fire behavior on differing ownerships; they conclude that “intensive plantation forestry characterized by younger forests and spatially homogenous fuels, rather than pre-fire biomass, were significant drivers of fire severity.”
While Ryan Zinke, the controversial and uninformed head of the Department of Interior, Donald Trump (Mr. Make America Rake Again), and the timber industry all claim that forest management on federal lands is responsible for increases in high severity fires and wildfire risk, the Zald and Dunn paper supports a very different conclusion.
We strongly recommend that fire scientists look at a similar situation in the central Sierra Nevada, compare fire on the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests with Sierra Pacific Industry (SPI) lands and dissect the various drivers of high fire severity fire outcomes in this checkerboard landscape. Regardless of the outcome, it is important to know how ownership patterns and the homogenous plantations on SPI lands contribute to fire behavior outcomes, along with fire weather, topography, fuels, and climate.
Upper image: SPI plantations below Stumpy Reservoir in the El Dorado National Forest area
Lower image: The same area in 2016, after the King Fire burned plantations with high severity
Source: Google Earth satellite images
Finally, and equally important to the reforestation and fire risk discussion, a new research paper by Brandon Collins and others in Fire Ecology asking the question: How does forest recovery following moderate-severity fire influence effects of subsequent wildfire in mixed-conifer forests?
The authors restate the accepted notion that fire has been an integral ecological process for thousands of years and, without it, these forests lose key structures and function; and relatively low-to-moderate severity fire reduces the potential for future uncharacteristic large patches of stand-replacing fire. The paper’s focus is to better understand how low-to-moderate severity fires influence subsequent wildfire. Post-fire legacy structures (biomass) and fire exclusion influence future fire effects, and recent research suggests returning fire could consume a significant portion of the “dead pool” by consuming the surface and ladder fuels. On the other hand, the vegetation and fuel dynamics could increase subsequent fire behavior and effects. The authors suggest that with fire activity increasing in the future and fire exclusion operating as a negative feed-back leading to higher severity effects, it is important to understand what management interventions could occur to limit negative re-burn outcomes and foster resilience.
The paper looked at reburn effects from the 1996 Ackerson Fire, in the 2013 Rim Fire (Stanislaus NF and Yosemite National Park), and found higher reburn severity in areas that had “even modest levels of white fir basal area or higher levels of standing dead biomass” as expected based on higher surface fuel loads. In this study, the authors also found that the configuration of the existing shrub cover was not an important factor in explaining reburn severity, unlike two other recent studies in the Sierra Nevada.
While the authors clearly explain the limitations of their study, the conclusion points to the positive role of moderate-severity fire for restoring forest structure in forests that have experienced long periods of fire exclusion. The paper points out that a single reburn entry does not remove the threat of high residual biomass levels adding to surface fire intensity and torching. As a possible solution, the authors recommend the repeated use of prescribed fire to consume dead fuels. The big questions are - Is the Forest Service ready to accept fire-regime levels of moderate-severity fire effects as a treatment rather than a disaster or salvage opportunity? And are we ready to accept rapid reburning of these areas to deal with dead fuels and not densely replant these areas immediately?
California has had an extremely tough, nearly year-round 2018 fire season. In the thirteen months between October 2017 and November 2018, the Golden State experienced four of the ten most destructive fires in state history. This includes the Camp Fire, which now ranks as America’s deadliest fire in over a century and California's worst fire in history.
Just two days into the Camp Fire, with hundreds of people missing and many deaths already counted, President Trump politicized the incident by blaming the fire on “poor forest management.” This was immediately criticized by firefighters, fire scientists, and others with a much deeper knowledge of California’s fire-adapted forests than the President.
The common narrative around modern California mega-fires can be summarized thus: Fire suppression over the past century allowed unnatural fuel loads to accumulate in our forests, making them more susceptible to high-severity crown fires that burn out of control and threaten communities.
The real story is considerably more nuanced, however, as demonstrated in the three research papers we highlighted in the lead story, above. We also recall that in 1996 a special report to Congress called the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project concluded that "Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuel accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity." Other human-related changes, such as the prevalence of invasive non-native grasses and other weeds, impacts from grazing livestock, and human expansion into natural areas, have all contributed to uncharacteristic fire behavior. Now climate change threatens to exacerbate all of these effects in unprecedented ways.
From its origin on November 8, 2018, near the community of Pulga in Butte County, the Camp Fire took off in an area of shrubs and grasses that had burned as recently as 2008, in the 2008 Butte Lightning Complex fires. Strong downslope winds gusting to 50 miles per hour, extremely low humidity, and low fuel moisture fueled the fire as it moved northwestward into the town of Paradise. At containment, on November 25, the Camp Fire had killed at least 88 people, with hundreds of people still missing, and it had burned more than 11,000 homes and 153,336 acres.
Image above: Camp Fire footprint, showing the different vegetation types and other cover within the fire perimeter.
According to Cal Fire’s Fire and Resource Assessment Program, just 29% of this area is classified as conifer forest, much of which was private timber lands. Some of this had burned in the Butte Lighting Complex area and had been salvage logged. The largest area burned in the Camp Fire is classified as hardwood forests and woodlands (around 44%). The fire also burned 14.8% grasslands and 6.5% chaparral, as well as significant amounts of urban areas, and agricultural land.
Fire suppression and fuels build-up in hardwood forests such as oak woodlands--just as in our conifer forests--over the past century has also increased the probability of high severity fire.
All of California’s vegetation communities evolved with fire in some way. Oak woodlands, hardwoods and shrubs which constituted much of the Camp Fire burn area, evolved with frequent low-severity surface fires that generally left the larger trees standing while reducing fuels. Scientists estimate the average fire return interval in oak woodlands is 3 years, with more conservative estimates noting fire return intervals of 8-15 years. These fires are thought to have burned relatively large areas due to high horizontal fuel continuity.
Chaparral ecosystems in southern California, on the other hand, have a nearly opposite relationship with fire. There, chaparral fires occurred infrequently, approximately every 30-150 years or more, and burned with high severity (stand replacing crown fires) when they did burn. Whereas oak woodlands and mixed conifer forests generally suffer from a fire deficit because of fire suppression, many of California’s chaparral ecosystems may have actually experienced a fire surplus over the past century due to an increase in human-caused fires. Too much fire in chaparral can lead to type conversion to non-native grasses and other species that can tolerate frequent fire cycles. This feedback process results in even more frequent fire, and steady loss of native biodiversity. Thus, prescribed fire may not be appropriate in many of southern California's chaparral ecosystems.
In northern California, thinning and/or prescribed fire are necessary to reduce fuels in both conifer forests and oak woodlands, to restore a natural fire regime that will be more resilient to fire. Across the state, homeowners and local jurisdictions such as county Fire Safe Councils are working together to address the great need now facing every community for proactive fire planning. At the state level, this spring Governor Brown announced the California Forest Carbon Plan and a budget that will apply $256 million in funds to implement the plan. The goal is to treat forests so that they are not only resilient to fire but provide carbon storage benefits as well. All of us, in every Sierran community, must become active to ensure that Paradise doesn't repeat itself. And yes, that means we will all have to remove some trees and shrubs.
California will doubtlessly enter a period of reckoning as the fall rains end the 2018 fire season and normalcy slowly returns to our communities. As the political conversation heats up, it’s important to consider the different roles that fire plays in each of our native ecosystems. Policies like requiring or incentivizing fire-safe home construction, strengthening local zoning ordinances to prevent sprawl in fire-prone areas, and reducing fuels in appropriate ecosystems must play a role in any policy solution aimed at preventing future events like the Camp Fire. As this conversation evolves, California lawmakers should avoid any one-size-fits-all solution that falsely conflates fire behavior in one ecosystem with another. With climate change expected to make nearly every facet of our Mediterranean climate more extreme and unpredictable, it’s more important than ever that we understand the nuances around fire in our native ecosystems.
2018 Election Update
The 2018 mid-term elections may have marked a major change in direction for U.S. public lands policy. While all four incumbent congressmen representing the Sierra Nevada (Representatives Lamalfa, McClintock, McCarthy, and Cook) won re-election, the House of Representatives will soon be under Democratic control for the first time since 2010. This change has huge implications for Sierra forests, ranging from funding levels for federal agencies, to threats to our existing environmental laws, to which bills are voted on by the House of Representatives as a whole.
One significant change will be in the leadership of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which is the starting point for any legislation related to wildlife, public lands, energy, forests, and more. Since 2010, the Committee has been chaired by Congressman Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican with a lifetime score of 2 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. Bishop will be replaced by Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona. Grijalva has long been an advocate for protecting public lands, having been the lead sponsor of the 2009 legislation creating the National Landscape Conservation System, and more recently a leading advocate for protecting National Monuments. In late-November 2018, Rep. Grijalva made headlines by leading an effort to submit a bicameral amicus brief in defense of National Monuments in Utah, which was signed by 92 House members and 26 Senators.
Also within the Committee on Natural Resources, Republican Congressman Tom McClintock, representing District 4 including the central Sierra Nevada, will now step down as Chair of the Subcommittee on Federal Lands which has jurisdiction over issues including wilderness, National Parks, wild and scenic rivers, wildlife resources, and public forest land. McClintock will be replaced by Representative Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii, who holds a lifetime League of Conservation Voters Score of 91 percent. Hanabusa has a positive record on forest ecosystem-related issues, having consistently voted against bills that would weaken NEPA, threaten endangered species, or enable the privatization of public lands.
Outside of the Natural Resources Committee, another important change for the Sierra Nevada lies in Representative Kevin McCarthy’s election to House Minority Leader. McCarthy represents California’s 23rd District, which includes portions of the Sequoia National Forest, the Giant Sequoia National Monument, and Sequoia National Park. This new leadership position will give McCarthy much greater influence over legislation in the House than he previously held, possibly drawing more national attention to his district and to the concerns of constituents in the Southern Sierra.
Votes are expected on several important forest-related bills before the new Congress begins in January. First, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the nation’s most significant funding source for parks, protected areas, and outdoor recreation, expired in early October. LWCF uses royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund land conservation, parks maintenance projects, historic sites, and more. Two bills with broad bipartisan support (S.569 and H.R.502) were already introduced to reauthorize LWCF, but whether they’ll be passed by the lame duck Congress remains to be seen. Lawmakers from both chambers are working to reconcile differences between the two bills, mainly around whether legislation will provide full funding for the program at its authorized level of $900 million per year. Possible legislative routes for LWCF re-authorization include a potential stand-alone public lands bill, or inclusion in a year-end spending package.
One possible avenue for LWCF reauthorization lies in the 2018 Farm Bill, which we’ve written about in the past two issues of the Sierra Voice. Where we left off, the House and Senate had both passed their own Farm Bills which reflected vastly different visions for forest policy. The House Farm Bill contains numerous provisions (which we’ve described at length in previous newsletters) aimed at promoting logging over other uses of federal forests, largely by eliminating public input in the NEPA process and expanding categorical exclusions. By contrast, the Senate Bill avoids these attacks on our environmental laws and instead promotes several important conservation programs like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. At the time of this writing in early December 2018, the leaders of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees had recently announced an agreement on a final Farm Bill, but the fate of the forestry title is still unclear. Here at SFL, our fingers are crossed that this final bill will promote ecologically-sound forest restoration without compromising our most important environmental protections.
Seeking Improvements to the New Inyo Forest Plan
We and coalition partners are using the objection process to seek improvements to the revised forest plan released in August, 2018. We have provided recommendations and feedback to the Forest Service during the development of the revised forest plan and the objection we filed outlines several areas where we seek improvements to the final plan. The changes we seek include:
- Additional areas to be recommended as Wilderness Areas;
- Protection of roadless areas that reinforce the protections provided in the Roadless Area Conservation Rule;
- Improvements to the management of over-snow vehicle travel to protect resources and quiet winter recreation;
- Inclusion of northern goshawk as an at-risk species and addition of conservation measures for this species to the forest plan;
- Improved conservation measures for sage grouse and California spotted owl;
- Standards that prevent the degradation of meadows and fens; and
- Determination of Wild and Scenic River eligibility for several reaches in the Mono Basin and elsewhere.
We provided specific language in our objection that could be included in the forest plan to resolve our objections. We will be meeting in January with the Forest Service and other objectors to discuss several of the issues above and hope to resolve our concerns at that time.
We also filed as Interested Persons for several objection issues raised by others. This will allow us to be part of any discussion about aspects of the revised forest plan that we support, but that another party has objected to.
Good News for Fisher: USFWS Compelled By Court to Reconsider Best Available Science
Fisher protection is back on track! In September, a federal judge in the Northern District of California ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must reconsider their denial of Endangered Species Act protection for Pacific fishers. The Service proposed federal protection for the fisher in 2014, but then arbitrarily withdrew the proposal in 2016. Groups then filed suit alleging that the denial ignored the science in a politically motivated bow to the timber industry. The ruling directs the Service to issue a new decision for the fisher by March 22, 2019. See additional details in our press release about the decision.
Not surprisingly, the Department of Justice and the Service have asked the court to extend the deadline for a new decision to July 21, 2020 – almost two years after the court directed the agency to issue a new decision. We view this as foot-dragging by the Service, especially in this case where the scientific record is complete and clearly supports listing fisher under the Endangered Species Act. We have opposed this motion and are now waiting to hear a determination from the court.
Sierra Forest Legacy Bids Farewell to Two Forest Conservation Leaders
Craig Thomas—one of Sierra Forest Legacy’s founders, Executive Director, Conservation Director, and life-long dedicated activist working to protect the forest ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada—has retired as of November 30.
Craig plans to continue to actively work with the Fire MOU Partnership to advance fire restoration and collaborative smoke management policies needed to restore California’s fire-adapted ecosystems. His work will continue within a newly formed non-profit organization called the Fire Restoration Group.
We will miss his leadership, his expertise, and his steadfast commitment.
Contact Craig by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also this fall, we bid farewell to Stan Van Velsor. Stan was the Forest Policy Specialist in California for The Wilderness Society. Before working for TWS, worked as as a biologist for the BLM, where he advocated for ecologically sustainable grazing and OHV policies. Stan was a steadfast Wilderness advocate who contributed his knowledge towards protecting roadless areas and securing recommendations for appropriate new Wilderness designations in the early adopter forest plan revisions. Stan’s leadership in the SFL coalition will be missed, but his retirement is well earned and we wish him all the best.
Two New Spotted Owl Studies with Implications for Conservation Planning
Blakey, R.V., R.B. Siegel, E.B. Webb, C.P. Dillingham, R.L. Bauer, M. Johnson, and D.C. Kesler. 2019. Space use, forays, and habitat selection by California spotted owls (Strix occidentalis occidentalis) during the breeding season: new insights from high resolution GPS tracking. Forest Ecology and Management 432:912-922.
Wood, C.M., S.A. Whitmore, R.J. Gutierrez, S.C. Sawyer, J.J. Keane, and M.Z. Peery. 2018. Using metapopulation models to assess species conservation-ecosystem restoration trade-offs. Biological Conservation 224:248-257.
Blakey et al. (2019) is the first published study on California spotted owl habitat selection that used Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. GPS transmitters were attached to 8 females and 7 males from 8 territories on the Mount Hough Ranger District of the Plumas National Forest. Data were recorded during the 2015, 2016, and 2017 breeding seasons (April-August).
Key Findings: Corroborating numerous studies over the past 25 years, spotted owls selected forests dominated by large trees with more than 70 percent canopy cover for foraging and roosting and selected against forests with less than 50 percent canopy cover and areas dominated by small trees.
However, 48 percent of spotted owl roosts were located outside of Protected Activity Centers (PACs), and for some owls, less than 5 percent of foraging or roosting locations occurred within PACs. Female home ranges were more than twice the size of males, and females traveled more than twice as far from the nest, an observation not previously documented. Non-breeding females also had home range sizes that were larger than ever documented for the species, with one individual having a home range that was 16,052 acres.
Conservation Implications: Current habitat protections afforded spotted owls on U.S. Forest Service-managed lands in the Sierra Nevada protect only a small proportion of the habitat routinely used by the species for foraging and roosting within the home range. This suggests that the current management strategy employed by the U.S. Forest Service is inadequate and not appropriately scaled. This new information may help explain the observed ongoing declines of the species.
To conserve the species, managers must provide for adequate amounts of resilient high quality nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat at the home range scale. Vegetation management activities should focus on reducing surface and ladder fuels and returning frequent low, moderate and mixed severity fire to the landscape. Perpetuating a strategy that relies on PACs to protect the species from incompatible management activities and allowing for logging larger trees and significantly reducing canopy cover outside of PACs is not only likely to be ineffective at stopping the ongoing declines, it is likely to exacerbate them.
Figure 4 from Blakey et al. (2019). Movement paths of non-breeding female California spotted owls (traces), home ranges of mates in the same year (if tracked, dashed polygons) and Protected Activity Centers (black polygons). Panel (a) shows three non-breeding females. Panel (b)shows three non-breeding females from two territories (red and purple traces are from two separate female owls that paired with the same male in different years).
Using occupancy histories of 64 spotted owl territories over 22 years in the Eldorado demographic study area, Wood et al. (2018) calculated the probability of territory recolonization after abandonment.
Key Findings: The probability of recolonization remained relatively high years after territory abandonment (see Figure 2a), even in a study area where colonization has been low due to the ongoing decline of the species. For example, despite a 50 percent decline in abundance over the study period, there was a 20 percent probability a spotted owl would recolonize a territory 4 years afterabandonment. Additionally, territories with higher amounts of high quality habitat had higher probabilities of recolonization.
Conservation Implications: Managers should not retire PACs after only a few years of negative survey results and PACs with higher amounts of high quality habitat should not be removed from the system.
Figure 2a from Wood et al. (2018). Logistic regression showing the probability of spotted owl recolonization on the Eldorado demographic study as a function of the years of vacancy
Mountain Quail (Oreortyx pictus) Image by ©Carol Riddell, McCauley Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Mountain Quail, with its rich feathering in earth tones consisting of a chestnut throat-patch, a brilliant slate-blue head and neck, white side bars, and a long slender plume composed of two feathers atop of its head, is easily recognized once seen. Males and females look essentially alike; the females plumes are smaller. But consider yourself lucky if you do see one. Although their call is frequently heard by visitors to the Sierra Nevada between the months of April and August, they are more often heard than seen (a loud wook or crow). Indeed, John Muir called the Mountain Quail "the very handsomest and most interesting of all American partridges ... That he is not so regarded, is because as a lonely mountaineer he is not half known." Extremely secretive, they do not perch in trees, but are always low to the ground. They do not flush, but instead tend to run off quietly into the underbrush, which is always nearby and where they are typically feeding. In the fall, they begin migrating on foot from their mountain forest home to the oak woodlands and chaparral habitats in the foothills where they will remain until spring, when they will migrate again back upslope. One author noted altitudinal migration distances range up to 50 miles in the Sierra Nevada, but little data exist.
Although Mountain Quail is the largest quail in North America north of the tropics, and a widely hunted and prized game bird, there is a lack of information about the ecology of the five recognized subspecies that range from Vancouver Island in British Columbia to Northern Baja, Mexico. Some populations, north and east of California, have been introduced. However, it is most abundant here in California. Some of the populations where it has been introduced are in decline, or extirpated. It has been said that less is known about this bird than any other upland game species in the United States.
In California, Mountain Quail are residents of the Coast Ranges, and Cascade, Klamath, Sierra Nevada, Transverse, and Peninsular mountain ranges. In the deserts of eastern California, uncommon and isolated populations occur in the White, Inyo, Panamint, Grapevine, Coso, and Argus mountains, usually near desert oases above 5,000 feet. The habitats most associated with the species in California include upper montane (up to tree line, at 9 to 10,000 feet) and mixed-conifer forest, mountain and foothill chaparral, oak woodland, pinyon-juniper, and coastal forest. According to several authors that have studied the Mountain Quail, the most essential habitat components are tall, dense shrubs—from which they are never far—and access to water.
Mountain Quail are unusual and difficult to study because of their altitudinal migrations, the difficulty of distinguishing males from females, and their general secrecy. There are no definitive data for estimating the average home range for Mountain Quail. Mountain Quail in four study locations in California (Modoc Plateau, Klamath Mountains, North Coast Range, and Northern Sierra Nevada) were found to occur at densities ranging from 9 to 30 birds per hundred hectares.
The diet of adult Mountain Quail is more than 96 percent vegetable matter, and approximately 4 percent insect or animal foods (mostly ants and grasshoppers), although young birds eat a higher percentage of insects than adults. Mountain Quail utilize a huge variety of plant foods, enabling them to exploit seasonal foods such as leaves and buds in the winter and spring, and more nutritionally dense foods the rest of the year. In the summer and fall their primary foods are seeds from a variety of plants, including acorns, pine nuts, flowers, fruits from a variety of shrubs, bulbs, fungi, and animal matter.
A sampling of the foods that Mountain Quail eat in California include the acorns of oaks and chinquapin, pine seeds, seeds of Ceanothus spp., manzanita, silk tassel bush, toyon, poison oak, lemonade berry, service berry, snowberry, currant, and numerous grasses; they also eat the bulbs of wild onions and other bulbs as well as California onion grass (Melica spp.); and the leaves and seeds of a variety of clover and other legumes, chickweed, and storksbill. Over a hundred species of plants have been documented through examining the birds' crop contents.
Nests are a shallow depression on the ground lined with grasses, leaves, pine needles, and feathers. They are well concealed and are found primarily under shrubs or ferns, but have also been found beside rocks or logs, beneath brush piles, beneath low branches, or in grass. The clutch size averages 10 eggs. Both monogamous parents rear the young after they hatch in late June or early July, and the family groups remain together in the winter. Winter coveys average 5 to 10 individuals.
Mountain Quail require daily drinking water during the hot weather, and young birds need water soon after hatching to survive. In the Sierra Nevada, the average distance of the birds from water was reported at 310 feet.
Habitat loss is the primary threat to this species, occurring from livestock grazing, dams, agricultural cropping and other human developments, cheatgrass and other weeds, brush clearing, fire (directly from deaths and loss of habitat), as well as fire suppression that reduces habitat; and any activity that reduces shrub habitat in their breeding and wintering habitats, including type conversion of chaparral and shrub habitats. Spring logging in the Sierra Nevada has resulted in substantial nest losses. Reforestation after fire that eliminates natural post-fire regrowth in early successional forests is likely to be another threat to Mountain Quail in California.
Predators that have been documented to prey on Mountain Quail include Cooper’s Hawks and other accipiters, Great Horned Owl, coyote, bobcat, gray fox, weasels, and domestic cats. Nest predation occurs from a variety of animals. Poison grain set out for ground squirrels or rodents may also be a threat to Mountain Quail; although anecdotal accounts from early in the 1900s claimed that the birds were immune to strychnine, this has never been verified. Diseases are not thought to play a significant role in declining populations.
Early observers (early 20th century) also believed that hunting was not a threat to this species, because of the difficulty of hunting this secretive bird. Nevertheless, in 2015 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s permitted and reported 118,957 Mountain Quail successful kills of this species by licensed hunters in California.
A model developed by the National Audubon Society analyzes climate change impacts on bird species. For the Mountain Quail, the model “projects a contraction within current ranges during both seasons, with a loss of 58 percent of current summer range and 44 percent of current winter range. As a result, this species will especially need assistance in weathering climate change's effects on its remaining core range within northern California and southern Oregon.”
A petition to list the northernmost population segment in the northern part of the Great Basin, and eastern Washington and Oregon, for protection under the Endangered Species Act was submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000. The petition was denied primarily due to a lack of information about the taxonomic and genetic differences of these subspecies relative to the populations at large. The issue is complicated by the many translocations and introductions of the species from California populations, and the lack of record keeping going back a century or more.
It is currently thought that Mountain Quail populations in the Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges of California are stable, although populations fluctuate widely depending upon seasonal rainfall. The status of populations is determined by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) solely by the number of bagged quail that get reported by hunters. Reproductive success is strongly influenced by the amount of winter and spring rainfall; when the hunt numbers fall in a dry year, the CDFW may adjust the number of tags permitted in the following year. No monitoring has been conducted to confirm if assumptions about the viability of Mountain Quail are still valid.
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