By Scott Prater
Western Burrowing Owls are back at Schriever and the 50th Civil Engineer Squadron Environmental Flight has initiated a protection campaign to safeguard the threatened birds while they maintain temporary residence here.
Prior to their mating and nesting season, the owls fly thousands of miles from their winter abodes in Mexico. Once here, they chase prairie dogs away from established burrows, then use those to mate and care for their young for a few months before migrating back.
The only concern for Schriever comes in the fact that the birds have been designated as a threatened species by the state of Colorado and covered under the Migratory Bird Act by the federal government, as well as in an Air Force Instruction. So, steps need to be taken to protect them and the habitat in areas they reside.
“We need to maintain a balance between mission and environmental stewardship,” said Al Fernandez, Natural and Cultural Resource interim manager. “In terms of the bigger concept of sustainability, and basically the survival of the human species, it’s important that we protect threatened species to ensure we have biodiversity not only in our state, but in the world. We try to do our environmental stewardship with respect to that as a broader goal.”
At Schriever, the 50th Civil Engineer Squadron Environmental Flight is in charge of protecting the birds while they’re here, which could last until Nov. 1, the date the Colorado Department of Wildlife has designated as the end of the Burrowing Owl’s nesting season.
This year, a pair of Western Burrowing Owls has commandeered a prairie dog burrow approximately 300 feet north of the Child Development Center. The owls will mate and care for the young for the next few months, until they deem the fledglings can survive on their own, according to Mr. Fernandez.
Since the owls are a protected species, their presence can often delay or impede construction plans or transportation in the vicinity of the designated burrows.
Unfortunately, the owl’s timing turned out to be bad news for 50th CES and a construction contractor, who was about to begin construction on a new playground and an additional building for the CDC. Civil engineer crews visited the area April 24 to begin relocating a ditch on the north side of the CDC in preparation for construction when they noticed the owls.
“As soon as the owls were spotted, CEV had to stop everything that could have an impact on the owls’ nest and this could be all sorts of things, including noise pollution, ground vibrations from construction, even visual effects of people being in the vicinity and any trash or debris,” said Jana Raczkowski, 50th CES/CEV contract support. “The biggest thing is the ground vibrations because they could collapse the burrows and destroy the nest, or a physical presence could cause them to abandon their nest, which is just as bad as destroying it.”
Government regulations stipulate that no physical harm should be caused to either the birds or their natural habitat. Those same governmental agencies don’t provide specific requirements or protocols for organizations to meet compliance, but the Colorado Department of Wildlife does offer a recommendation, which states that a buffer zone of 150 feet should exist between the owls’ nests and any construction or transportation area.
The environmental flight is the organization responsible for monitoring the owls and reporting any violation of Air Force, state and federal regulations concerning the owls. Violations are reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and CDOW, who take the matter very seriously and follow through with at least some sort of punishment, according to Miss Raczkowski.
Construction of the CDC addition and playground were put on indefinite hold once the owls were spotted in the area. Ultimately, the decision to resume construction rests with the base civil engineer, Lt. Col. Daniel Clairmont, 50th CES commander.
“Once we monitor, we survey the area and measure how far construction is going to be from the area and determine potential negative impacts to the owls or their nest,” Miss Raczkowski said. “Once we assess everything that could have an impact, we provide all of the information and recommendations on how to proceed to the base civil engineer.”
The environmental flight has erected signs warning everyone to stay out of the protected buffer zone and has released a base bulletin, which informs Schriever personnel about the protected birds.
The environmental flight continues to monitor the base for other nests. In the meantime, CEV seeks to make people here aware of the potential for more burrowing sites.
“There could be more burrowing owl sites on base, so we want to inform people to report any owl sightings to the environmental flight and understand not to approach the area,” Miss Raczkowski said.
Call the environmental flight at 567-4028 or 567-4242 to report any owl sightings.