North Natomas burrowing owls likely face eviction

Burrowing owls, pictured in 2003 along Freeport Boulevard in Sacramento, are listed as a climate-endangered species whose habitat is being threatened.
Burrowing owls, pictured in 2003 along Freeport Boulevard in Sacramento, are listed as a climate-endangered species whose habitat is being threatened. Sacramento Bee file

They peek out of storm drains and nest behind utility cables in the Montauk housing development in North Natomas.

The houses have yet to arrive, but in the meantime a family of burrowing owls has set up their own home in the KB Home development.

The owls may have taken up residence during the years that construction in North Natomas was halted by a combination of the recession and a de facto building moratorium imposed by the federal government until levees protecting the area from flooding were strengthened.

These photogenic birds have attracted fans, including Karen Bishop-White, a resident of the Town & Country neighborhood who has been driving out to view them several times a week over the past month.

Bishop-White worries about what will happen to the birds now that building can resume. She said she hasn’t received an answer from either KB Home or the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “I’m worried that they’re going to pile dirt on top of their burrows,” she said.

Contacted by The Sacramento Bee, representatives of KB Home issued an e-mail statement saying the company is “working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the City of Sacramento to ensure all protocols are followed.”

“KB Home strives to minimize the impact on the natural environment in every location where we build,” the statement says. It does not say what the plans are for dealing with the Montauk owls.

But standard practice, permitted by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, is to evict owls from construction sites by closing off the entrances to their burrows with a one-way door so they can’t get back in.

“Burrowing owls sometimes move into construction sites, and when that’s the case the department allows for developers to evict or passively exclude the owls, said Todd Gardner, environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In return, developers are required to set aside suitable habitat elsewhere.

Burrowing owls can only be evicted after nesting season, which starts in February and ends by September.

The practice of shutting the diminutive owls out of their burrows – requiring them to figure out where to go – has drawn criticism from some environmental groups that would prefer to see them relocated to new homes. Burrowing owls are designated as a species of special concern in California.

The passive evictions do not go far enough in safeguarding the declining burrowing owl population, said Larry Jordan, habitat manager of the Urban Bird Foundation.

“I don’t believe passive relocation works. No one has any idea where the owls that have been displaced go,” he said. “I believe owls that are evicted from their burrows most likely perish, and no amount of mitigation can offset that loss.”

Jordan said he believes the burrowing owls – just 9 inches tall – do not always find a new home before being preyed upon by raptors or other animals.

Once abundant throughout California, burrowing owl populations have declined since the 1940s. In the early 90s, a survey of the species found that populations in the southern San Francisco Bay region and in the northern and central portions of the Central Valley had fallen rapidly.

The burrowing owl is the only owl species that lives underground. Unlike most owls, it is active day and night. Its brown feathers help it blend into the open landscapes that it favors. The species is a popular sight because of its entertaining behavior, which includes hopping after small prey. The owls do not like to stray far from their burrows.

Jordan and others are calling for the state’s fish and wildlife agency to reexamine its policy of not allowing translocation of owls. Translocation involves physically taking owls from burrows and relocating them to other habitat. That procedure has been used with some success on hundreds of burrowing owls in Arizona.

The state has been contemplating its translocation policy for several years, said Esther Burkett, scientist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We support research with this method.”

Translocations have been done in California, but only as part of a scientific study. To get approval requires a daunting permitting process. “It must be a scientific endeavor, with adequate funding and staff to carry it out and monitor the results,” Burkett said.

KB Home spokesman Craig LeMessurier said the company has followed the required environmental review process for the Montauk development, which the company’s website says will eventually have 342 homes. Developers in Natomas must abide by the Natomas Habitat Conservation Plan, which requires them to set aside habitat for displaced species. The habitat is managed by the Natomas Basin Conservancy.

It’s not clear if the environmental review done for the Montauk project included the burrowing owls currently living where development is underway.

LeMessurier said he was unaware of the specific group of owls in Montauk. A call to the biologist handling the review on behalf of KB Home was not returned.

LeMessurier said KB Home does not disclose sales figures or information on when development will begin in the area the owls inhabit.

The Natomas Basin Conservancy has set aside habitat for 22 species, including land for the burrowing owl. To date it has 4,125 acres set aside for them, and half of that acreage may be ideal burrowing owl habitat, said John Roberts, executive director at the conservancy.

Although hawks and other large raptors are formidable enemies of the burrowing owl, its greatest threat comes from humans. Urban development and the conversion of open lands to cropland have deeply diminished the owl’s habitat. The establishment of orchards and vineyards is often cited as a reason for the disappearance of suitable land for the species, which requires large uninterrupted vistas to stay aware of predators.

The expectation is that burrowing owl populations will continue to decline. An Audubon Climate Report lists the burrowing owl as a climate-endangered species and predicts a 77 percent loss of its current breeding range by 2080.

Climate change is bringing a new threat to the birds, said Garry George, renewable energy director for Audubon California.

“Renewable energy projects – especially solar – also has had impacts on the burrowing owl,” George said.

George also would like to see the state reconsider its translocation policy. He hopes that a new mitigation strategy takes hold – where burrowing owl reserves are established that can host large populations of the birds.

“A lot of the mitigation that is done now is piecemeal,” George said. “The mitigation is very small and may not be sustainable for owls over a long period of time.”

A model for such habitat is being set up in Butte County on private land, said Jordan of the Urban Bird Foundation. That land is the Tuscan Preserve, a 56-acre tract a local rancher set aside.

That land now has three artificial burrows established in an area traditionally favored by the burrowing owls. One of the burrows has hosted a breeding pair of burrowing owls that produced six chicks, Jordan said.

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz