Don't Foul the Owl - A Coastal Activist Introduction

  • Posted on 7 January 2021
  • By The Grassroots Outreach Team

The Importance of the Burrowing Owl to a Coastal Activist

As Sierra Club members work together and try to protect coastal land from illegal development or development inconsistent with the California Coastal Act, it is important for activists to become familiar with the specific species found on the property of interest. 
Species have designations on the federal level and state level that determine if they have any protections. If they have protections there are instructions that outline the proper ways to account for the species, their habitats, and the mitigations that may or may not be allowed. The Coastal Act provides considerations for habitats where species of plants and animals with some protected status live. These areas are designated as ESHA (Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas) and they get special consideration for outright protection or for mitigation.
Since the populations of Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) in California are in decline, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) designated it as a “species of special concern” and created a report in 1995 that outlined mitigation and survey recommendations. In spite of these efforts, during the following 15 years, the population of Burrowing Owls has fallen into further decline, so the CDFW updated its report in 2012. Contact the Grassroots Outreach team of the Communications Committee if you need a copy of this report called CDFW 03/7/12 BUOW Staff Report.
For coastal activists, this and related reports are important because they outline how surveys are to be conducted. Protecting coastal property often comes down to issues related to whether specific species or specific habitats are found on the property. 
Often when the discussion about development on coastal properties includes ESHA, there is an argument that develops between the activist and the developer as to whether the ESHA exists and if it exists, where specifically does it exist. Burrowing Owls are very shy, because of this they can be missed if a Biological Survey is not conducted correctly using the standards and practices outlined in the 2012 BUOW Staff Report and related established scientific methods.
When an activist identifies the potential of Burrowing Owls living or foraging within the boundaries of the site in question, it is important to find evidence. Burrowing Owls are interesting in that they do not live in trees. Everybody knows the Burrow Owl lives in a hole in the ground, specifically in the abandoned burrows dug by prairie dogs and ground squirrels. Thus a property filled with burrows alone is not a sign of Burrowing Owls.  Usually, local birdwatchers and local environmentalists can network among one another to find old articles or amateur photos that would demonstrate the Burrowing Owls have been seen on the property. Although, it is important to remember that an old article or photo of a sighting is not enough evidence on its own. However, it may be enough evidence to achieve one of two objectives - either requiring the landowner to conduct a Biological Survey that includes standard survey methods for researching Burrowing Owl presence or getting permission to have a third party professional conduct the survey paid for by the activist. This may require fundraising by the Sierra Club activists and presenting a grant request to the Conservation Committee Chair and ExCom.
Timing is important as surveys are not quick and winter burrowing habits are of particular interest. Some Burrowing Owl colonies live in California year-round, but some are migratory. These Burrowing Owls are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the United States and Mexico and as such US Fish and Wildlife (USFW) considers them to be a Bird of Conservation Concern.
When seeking to protect the habitats of Burrowing Owls, the activists need to identify and promote two areas to be designated at ESHA - where they live and where they forage. In addition, the activists need to focus on both the actual ESHA boundary and the “buffer” boundaries. The area where the owls actually live can be a small area, but since they are timid and subject to being disturbed by human activity one can argue that a large buffer zone should be designated around that ESHA. The activists need to focus on the foraging area also. Sometimes a government agency will agree that the burrows of the owl should be considered ESHA, but they fail to designate foraging areas of ESHA. The developer will argue that the owls’ foraging areas are “not on their site”. The activist must identify where the owls actually forage and if this area includes parts of the development site they can be designated as ESHA. Grasslands are the normal foraging areas for Burrowing Owls. Although Grasslands are important and biologically diverse, their existence alone will not qualify an area as ESHA. However, if the Grassland is the identified foraging area of the Burrowing Owls, then those specific Grasslands (of a portion thereof) would be elevated to the status of ESHA.
Do you want to learn more? The Grassroots Outreach Team of the Communications Committee has information to share. If there is enough interest, we will add the mentioned reports to our website.


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