Lugging two heavy buckets of rocks, David Johnson trudged across northeast Oregon’s sunburnt shrub-steppe in the hot mid-May sun. Before him lay the U.S. Army’s Umatilla Chemical Depot, where rows of concrete igloos once held stockpiled chemical weapons. Now, the virtually deserted Depot provides thousands of acres of prime burrowing owl habitat. Johnson, head of the Global Owl Project, dumped the rocks around the man-made owl home he’d recently installed, to coyote-proof it.
Burrowing owls, nine inches tall with white Groucho Marx eyebrows and long skinny legs, are farmers’ friends — a single owl family can gobble over 1,000 crop-chewing rodents per year. Once found from Minnesota to California, their populations have plummeted as development encroaches on their habitat — treeless grasslands and deserts — and on the burrow-diggers they rely on, like badgers and prairie dogs. The owls are considered “birds of conservation concern” federally, as well as in eight Western states.
The burrowing owls on the Umatilla Chemical Depot provide a case study in unintended consequences. An unsuccessful attempt to breed pronghorn inadvertently caused the owl population to crash. The Global Owl Project has helped the bird to recover, but now it faces a new threat, a proposed solar farm. “This is how a species becomes endangered in the first place,” says Johnson. When habitat protection and economic development become mutually exclusive, he says, “No one wins.”
Since 1941, the 17,000-acre Depot has been protected from development and agricultural expansion. That’s allowed wildlife to thrive, including long-billed curlews, loggerhead shrikes, black-throated sparrows, coyotes, red-tailed hawks and burrowing owls.
Then, in 1969, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to relocate pronghorn here, hoping to breed animals that could be released in other parts of the state. The herd grew to about 350, then declined, most likely from overgrazing and inbreeding. Wildlife officials, though, blamed coyotes and set out to exterminate them by trapping. In the process, they killed most of the Depot’s badgers. But burrowing owls need badger dens for nesting and raising their young, and as the now-abandoned burrows caved in, so did the population of owls. By 2008, they had almost disappeared, dropping to an all-time low of four nesting pairs.
So Johnson and some volunteers began installing artificial burrows. Every nest site has two or three buried chambers, each made from half of a 55-gallon barrel with a 10-foot-long entrance tunnel of flexible drainage pipe. The owls moved in, and by 2009, there were nine nesting pairs. Over the next eight years, Johnson installed 183 artificial burrows. In 2016, 64 nesting pairs raised 182 chicks. “If you know what you need to put back into the system, intensive effort can work and work really well,” says Dave Oleyar, senior scientist for Hawkwatch International, who encountered similar “housing” issues with tree-cavity-nesting flammulated owls. Johnson hopes the Depot’s owls will eventually spread around Oregon and Washington, part of this unique Northwest subpopulation’s historic range.
But now the owls face a new hurdle: the potential intrusion of construction equipment followed by solar panels. When the U.S. Army decided to close the Depot, a federal task force came up with a plan in 2010 for its land, including an area for National Guard training and a 5,678-acre wildlife refuge. To pay for removing base infrastructure, restoring native species, and managing the refuge, the plan also called for a small solar farm, up to 200 acres.
After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to run the refuge, the Columbia Development Authority, a consortium of public and private business organizations, offered to take over. It also proposed a much larger solar farm — 2,000 acres that could generate $1 million worth of electricity annually. “We want to find a balance to protect habitat and economic development,” says Oregon State Rep. Greg Smith, executive director of the authority.
However, the solar farm would be built squarely on the “best remaining owl and curlew habitat,” says Johnson, “in direct opposition to why the wildlife refuge was designed and zoned to start with.” Johnson is working on an alternative that would place the solar array along the edges of the refuge, where no owls nest and where it can act as a fire break. He’s also seeking a wildlife-focused group, such as a land trust, to take title to the refuge land. The Depot handover could happen as early as spring 2017.
Johnson also hopes to help restore balance by relocating nuisance badgers to the refuge from around Oregon. The mustelids would rein in the exploding population of pocket gophers, which eat native plants like big sagebrush and bunchgrasses, allowing non-natives such as cheatgrass and Russian thistle to invade. And more importantly, they’d once again dig homes for burrowing owls. Says Johnson, “I’d like to get out of the burrow business altogether.”
Leigh Calvez is the author of the bestselling book The Hidden Lives of Owls, published by Sasquatch Books. She lives near Seattle, Washington.