One Nation, Under God

It's All About the Burrowing Owls

Blame the burrowing owls.

Fascinating little critters that they are, the tiny birds are apparently the reason Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge adopted a scorched-earth policy regarding habitat.

According to refuge personnel, the owls thrive in areas of sparse vegetation, free of grass litter. Consequently, the refuge has been logged, drained, burned and grazed to maximize owl habitat.

It appears to have worked. Two adult owls raised five babies on the 15,000-acre plus refuge this summer.

The refuge used to offer the best public-land pheasant hunting in the country before making the switch from invasive species to a little-known native. The change has certainly benefitted the refuge, which used to be swamped with pheasant hunters every fall. Now few hunters waste their time at the Bowdoin, and the handful of birdwatchers who visit don’t stay long. Once the owls leave there’s not much to see other than alkali whirlwinds dancing across the dry lakebed.

Too bad sage grouse didn’t capture the attention of refuge personnel. They actually need grass litter for nesting purposes. However, sage grouse, an increasingly threatened species, aren’t nearly as cute as burrowing owls.

In a county that has been suffering from drought for a number of years, broad expanses of barren land are quite common. To my untrained eye there seems to already be an overabundance of burrowing owl habitat.

The refuge has also employed an aggressive cattail-thinning policy, plowing stands of cattails to keep them from becoming too thick. It appears to be working. Where the cattails were plowed, they have never regrown.

For more than a decade the Bowdoin has been at war with Russian olive trees. Their removal, I was told, will help facilitate the natural introduction of buffalo berry and other beneficial native shrubs.

While most of the olives are gone, I’m still waiting for that first buffalo berry sprout.

I had suspected the refuge was run by climate-change deniers. A scorched-earth habitat plan just didn’t seem the way to go as things get hotter and drier.

But I’m relieved to see that the focus is on burrowing owls. I dream of the day when owls darken the sky over a barren, grassless prairie, and waves of pheasants rising out of the cattails are but a fading memory of our misguided past.

Parker Heinlein is at [email protected]


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