Burrowing Owl Habitat and Rangeland Health Assessment

Learning how to write effective proposals is a key skill for restoration practitioners, and a main focus of one of our courses, Project Management & Policy for Ecological Restoration (ECO 622). One group of students chose to write a proposal for the Nature Trust of British Columbia. In an exciting development, showing us just how realistic our coursework can be, the proposal was approved and funded.  This allowed a group of students to implement the vegetation and habitat survey they designed over the summer of 2018.

In early May, we completed a physical and biological grassland assessment outside of Osoyoos, B.C. We wanted to determine if this property would be suitable habitat for reintroduction of the extirpated and SARA-listed Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea).

To do this, we divided the site into habitat polygons, using parameters such as slope, slope aspect, drainage, and plant species. We assessed these polygons using criteria specific to Burrowing Owls, such as number of available perches, presence of small burrows, and density of shrubs.

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Through our surveys, we found 78 native plant species, and evidence or sightings of seven animal species on site. We also conducted bat surveys and found six bat species on site, two of which are SARA-listed (Threatened and Endangered), and one red-listed in BC. Two invasive plant species were found within plots (Crested Wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) and Holly (Ilex aquifolium).

While our site surveys indicated that the grassland health was fair, no polygons on the site contained the correct combination of shorter grass, perches, low shrub density, and existing burrows that would be suitable for Burrowing Owl reintroduction. If small mammal populations on site are high, it could support Burrowing Owl reintroductions in neighbouring properties which are more suitable. A small mammal trapping survey could help identify the abundance of the small mammal population on site.

Other management suggestions stemming from our surveys include repairing or deactivating the dirt road that goes through the site. This would ensure that vehicles do not drive in the grasslands to avoid potholes or flooded roads. Performing controlled burns in the area could also help control invasive species and decrease the shrub density, making it more suitable habitat for Burrowing Owl reintroduction.

This project was a great opportunity to get out in the field and implement the proposal that we had designed to assess grassland health and habitat suitability. Our results will now help to inform management decisions for Burrowing Owls on this property.

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