Bedrooms for burrowing owls

In Oregon, the Global Owl Project builds artificial burrows to help owls recover.

 

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.”

 

Volunteer Julie Conley of Yakima, Washington, flattens the soil over an artificial burrow at the Umatilla Chemical Depot in Oregon.
Kathy Aney/East Oregonian

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.

A burrowing owl known as Groucho perches on a wire.
Jadine Cook/Global Owl Project

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Board of Diablo Trust is seeking applications for full-time Program Manager with duties of overseeing the coordination and administration of the Diablo Trusts ongoing...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • SECLUDED TWO-STORY CUSTOM LOG HOME
    in 16-acre pinion pine forest with year-round stream, mountain views, wildlife. Garage, root cellar, wood shop, one-room cabin, RV shed, pasture, garden. [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL, CUSTOM RASTRA BLOCK ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME
    Mature, six-acre Ponderosa forest, open pasture. Spectacular Sangre de Cristo mountain & valley views. Well maintained, paved county road, easy drive to world-class skiing &...
  • OJO CALIENTE RIVERSIDE SECLUSION
    Private, 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River between the confluence of the Chama & Rio Grande Rivers. Close to hiking,...
  • CLASSIC NEW MEXICO MOUNTAIN VIEWS
    of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 3.19 acre lot to build on to escape the crush of city/town life. Short distance to trails, skiing, fishing,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • ASSOCIATE OF PROGRAMS
    The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...