Population dynamics of spotted owls in the Sierra Nevada, California

Jennifer A. Blakesley, Mark E. Seamans, Mary M. Conner, Alan B. Franklin, Gary C. White, R. J. Gutiérrez, James E. Hines, James D. Nichols, Thomas E. Munton, Daniel W.H. Shaw, John J. Keane, George N. Steger, Trent L. McDonald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


The California spotted owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis) is the only spotted owl subspecies not listed as threatened or endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act despite petitions to list it as threatened. We conducted a meta-analysis of population data for 4 populations in the southern Cascades and Sierra Nevada, California, USA, from 1990 to 2005 to assist a listing evaluation by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Our study areas (from N to S) were on the Lassen National Forest (LAS), Eldorado National Forest (ELD), Sierra National Forest (SIE), and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (SKC). These study areas represented a broad spectrum of habitat and management conditions in these mountain ranges. We estimated apparent survival probability, reproductive output, and rate of population change for spotted owls on individual study areas and for all study areas combined (meta-analysis) using model selection or model-averaging based on maximum-likelihood estimation. We followed a formal protocol to conduct this analysis that was similar to other spotted owl meta-analyses. Consistency of field and analytical methods among our studies reduced confounding methodological effects when evaluating results. We used 991 marked spotted owls in the analysis of apparent survival. Apparent survival probability was higher for adult than for subadult owls. There was little difference in apparent survival between male and female owls. Model-averaged mean estimates of apparent survival probability of adult owls varied from 0.811 ± 0.021 for females at LAS to 0.890 ± 0.016 for males at SKC. Apparent survival increased over time for owls of all age classes at LAS and SIE, for adults at ELD, and for second-year subadults and adults at SKC. The meta-analysis of apparent survival, which included only adult owls, confirmed an increasing trend in survival over time. Survival rates were higher for owls on SKC than on the other study areas. We analyzed data from 1,865 observations of reproductive outcomes for female spotted owls. The proportion of subadult females among all territorial females of known age ranged from 0.00 to 0.25 among study areas and years. The proportion of subadults among female spotted owls was negatively related to reproductive output (no. of young fledged/territorial F owl) for ELD and SIE. Eldorado study area and LAS showed an alternate-year trend in reproductive output, with higher output in even-numbered years. Mean annual reproductive output was 0.988 ± 0.154 for ELD, 0.624 ± 0.140 for LAS, 0.478 ± 0.106 for SIE, and 0.555 ± 0.110 for SKC. Eldorado Study Area exhibited a declining trend and the greatest variation in reproductive output over time, whereas SIE and SKC, which had the lowest reproductive output, had the lowest temporal variation. Meta-analysis confirmed that reproductive output varied among study areas. Reproductive output was highest for adults, followed by second-year subadults, and then by first-year subadults. We used 842 marked subadult and adult owls to estimate population rate of change. Modeling indicated that λt (λt is the finite rate of population change estimated using the reparameterized JollySeber estimator Pradel 1996) was either stationary (LAS and SIE) or increasing after an initial decrease (ELD and SKC). Mean estimated λt for the 4 study areas was 1.007 (95 CI 0.9521.066) for ELD; 0.973 (95 CI 0.9461.001) for LAS; 0.992 (95 CI 0.9661.018) for SIE; and 1.006 (95 CI 0.9471.068) for SKC. The best meta-analysis model of population trend indicated that λ varied across time but was similar in trend among the study areas. Our estimates of realized population change (Δt; Franklin et al. 2004), which we estimated as the product 1 × λ3 × λ4 × .× λk -1, were based on estimates of λt from individual study areas and did not require estimating annual population size for each study area. Trends represented the proportion of the population size in the first year that remained in each subsequent year. Similar to λ on which they were based, these Δ showed evidence of decline over the study period for LAS and SIE. The best model indicated recruitment of male and female adult and subadults varied from 0.10 to 0.31 new territorial individuals at time t/number of territorial individuals at time t - 1 and similarly among areas. We also conducted a population viability analysis (PVA) based on results of our meta-analysis. This PVA was of limited utility for ELD and SKC study areas because 95 confidence intervals on the probability of decline or increase spanned the interval 0, 1 within 510 years. When we restricted inferences to 7 years, estimated probability of a >10 decline for SIE was 0.41 (95 CI 0.090.78); for LAS the probability was 0.64 (95 CI 0.270.94). In contrast, estimated probability of a >10 increase in 7 years for SIE was 0.23 (95 CI 0.010.55) and for LAS was 0.10 (95 CI 0.000.34). For comparisons, we simulated a PVA for a hypothetical population with mean λ 1.0 and the same temporal variation as observed in our owl populations. Our PVA suggested that both the SIE and LAS populations had higher probabilities of declining in a 7-year period than increasing but that it would be difficult to determine if a population was in a slight gradual decline. Our analysis and the repository of information on our 4 study populations provide a data-rich template for managers to monitor impacts of future management actions on the owl. Specifically, our data can be used to evaluate the effect of management strategies on spotted owls that are being implemented by the United States Forest Service to reduce the risk of wildfire in the Sierra Nevada ecosystem. Our information also provides baseline information for evaluating the status of the owl for potential listing as a threatened species by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-36
Number of pages36
JournalWildlife Monographs
Issue number174
StatePublished - Nov 1 2010


  • California spotted owl
  • Sierra Nevada
  • Strix occidentalis occidentalis
  • annual rate of population change
  • meta-analysis
  • population dynamics
  • reproductive output
  • survival rates

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