Tuesday, June 19

Efforts to Preserve Burrowing Owl Habitat Pays Off

When Emile and Josie Tessier of Minton joined Operation Burrowing Owl in 1987 and set aside about 40 acres of native prairie a stone’s throw away from their house, they had a feeling this was the right thing to do.

“I grew up seeing the owls around in the hills,” says Emile Tessier. “I’ll never forget the way they looked at me with eyes on a head that just about turned around 360 degrees, perched on a post or standing on the small dirt pile right by the hole where they nested. I was amazed at their adaptation to the land — from a gopher hole widened by a badger hunting gophers, these beautiful creatures made their home.”

Tessier speaks fondly of the owls, like most of the 450 Operation Burrowing Owl participants who have kept their land from cultivation, to ensure the owls have a home. For the third year in a row they have reported an increase in the number of owls nesting on their land. In 2004, 52 of them reported 95 pairs, compared to 75 pairs reported by 44 landowners in 2003.

Kim Dohms is Operation Burrowing Owl’s Project Manager. “The trend is very encouraging. It makes us think that what we’ve been doing for 17 years is having an impact on the population, and it likely reflects what is happening elsewhere in North America. Without the landowners, of course, none of this would be possible.”

About half of the participants have been with the program for at least 15 years. On average, they make about 80 acres of land available, but in some cases, as much as a full section is allocated as habitat. Operation Burrowing Owl signs are provided, if desired, and certificates of recognition are issued. However, there is no financial compensation for this commitment. Dohms is quick to point out that the land need not be taken out of production to qualify for the program.
“Producers can still use the land for grazing. It seems cattle don’t bother the owls very much. Some landowners report owls flying in the face of cattle that come to close to their nest, to chase them away. Pretty much the only agricultural activity that cannot take place is cultivating the land. Key to success is the landowners’ commitment to staying with the program for many years, even if the owls don’t come back.”

Apparently, burrowing owl populations are still a long way from what they were: 10 per cent only of 1988 population figures. Dohms tells how every April, for participants and for her, “there is always a period of anxiety over whether the owls that nested last year will be back again. For those who didn’t have owls the previous year, the question in their mind is: are they coming?”
Emile Tessier has often asked that. After a number of years without owls, two pairs settled on his land two years ago. Then last year, a big break: to his amazement, four pairs established themselves.

“A combination of factors must have made this possible. There was no spraying in surrounding areas and there was good hunting. I could see skulls of mice everywhere in the area. When the technicians came to band the birds, it was a real treat to see how they went about catching the owls right in their nest.”

Tessier believes that it is a bit of a miracle that there are any owls left at all.
“They are nocturnal animals — therefore, they hunt at night. The pasture is about 300 feet away from Highway 6. They fly low and they tend to be blinded by oncoming traffic. Nature has put cars on their evolutionary path. They must contend with that now. With a bit of luck, the owls will stick around a while longer, for the next generations to appreciate them.”
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