Battle for Burrowing Owls

Urban Bird Foundation

I had already been on the frontline for two years. My tactical pack – complete with camera and 500mm telephoto lens, a dozen padlocks, six feet of welded steel chain in various pre-cut lengths, notebook and pen, GPS receiver, and pocket-sized camcorder – was prepped for my morning patrol. The target zone was a 25-acre housing development, and once thriving grassland habitat, that fell victim to the real estate bubble. Construction stood still but had already scarred the landscape with a maze of asphalt streets, concrete sidewalks, and streetlights. Over the course of two years, with the development stalled, nature had begun reclaiming the land that she had lost.

Photo by Scott Artis.
Photo by Scott Artis.

I was there to protect a community, to guard the lives of 18 individuals and their offspring, to defend a suburban colony of western burrowing owls.

This makeshift wildlife refuge and its inhabitants were being disturbed by a constant flow of illegal dumping, vehicles off-roading, and drug dealers and their customers who hung around the property. Ground squirrel burrows now occupied by burrowing owls and their young were being destroyed. And although I was able to secure the entire property through constant vigilance and a perimeter of chain-link fencing obtained with the help of city officials, I would soon discover that the real threat to this unique, burrow-dwelling owl was habitat loss and irresponsible development – the latter backed by a faction that wielded significant power and abhorred the presence of this protected raptor that impeded “progress.”

I would soon realize, too, that these threats were not confined to the San Francisco Bay Area.

For three years, from 2008 to 2011, I fought this battle in Antioch, California, documenting the developer’s intentional use of rocks and debris to block burrow entrances and the use of poison gas to eradicate the owls. The plight captured the hearts of residents and the attention of local media. Representing the then newly-formed Burrowing Owl Conservation Network and an army of 209,000 constituents, I petitioned the office of the Attorney General of California to end the state’s policy of evicting burrowing owls, and sparked a statewide debate regarding the effectiveness of antiquated policies supposedly designed to protect and restore burrowing owl numbers.

My petition was ultimately defeated – construction on that project resumed in 2011. But it was not me that lost. It was a severely declining western burrowing owl population that suffered. It was a community that lost the open space that birds, other wildlife, and people need. It was the children who perhaps lost their first and only opportunity to see a burrowing owl in the wild. This was a loss for birds, people, and community in Anytown, USA.

Six years have since passed. But we continue to fight for burrowing owls – a species listed as endangered in Canada, threatened in Mexico, and as a bird of “conservation concern” in the United States. During this time, we have adopted an expanded strategy and transitioned into Urban Bird Foundation. And although that original burrowing owl colony has drifted into martyrdom, it was the catalyst for some incredible victories.

In 2012, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released updated mitigation guidelines to improve conservation of burrowing owls – the first and only update in the last 24 years. The agency recognized Urban Bird’s critical role in instigating this policy development. By partnering with local and national nonprofit organizations, public agencies, and cities and counties across the western US, we have helped restore and protect 10,074 acres of habitat for burrowing owls, other wildlife, and people. We have provided nature education and engaging field trips to 2,650 students. And we have assisted wildlife and communities across the nation by responding to more than 5,200 calls to rescue injured birds, protect habitat, and save owls.

However, burrowing owls and the urban green spaces they rely on are still at risk. Through Urban Bird Foundation’s new Communities of Action program, we aim to foster leadership and empower communities to defend their natural resources and protect burrowing owls. We will continue our work to conserve one of the most important and impactful places on the planet – our communities – and to secure the urban preserves and unintentional reserves that benefit us all.

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