Burrowing owl habitats at risk in Pinal County

Jeff Kronenfeld

A tent containing a pair of relocated burrowing owls and an artificial burrow setup by Wild at Heart.(Arizona Wildlife Resource )

Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Pinal County, AZ) Last month, Valerie Motyka’s organization, Arizona Wildlife Resource (AWR), received a call that burrowing owls near a construction site in San Tan were in trouble. From AWR’s headquarters in Eloy, she reached out to the landowner.

As a result, Wild at Heart, a wildlife rehab facility based out of Cave Creek, is now trapping and relocating the birds to artificial burrows far from the perils of heavy machinery.

“Most people do not know what to do when they see owls in danger, and by the time they get through calling a whole bunch of places, they've lost so much time,” Motyka said. “I help people get the right information and get that information to the right party, so we can step in and help those owls as soon as possible.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists burrowing owls as a species of concern in Arizona. In addition, a study published in the Journal of Raptor Research in 2018 found that burrowing owl populations in the U.S. declined over the last seven decades.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), Wild at Heart, and volunteers like Motyka work to mitigate the impact of development on these long-legged hunting birds, which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and state law.

Three burrowing owls.(Arizona Wildlife Resource)

A predator for pest control

Burrowing owls have diverse diets, including insects, rodents, frogs, and small birds like doves. Motyka says the owls offer pesticide-free, long-term pest management and that homeowners and developers should consider the owls when planning or landscaping. Some farmers in Pinal County have even allowed owls to be moved to their properties.

“Every day in rescue, I see those natural predators trying to live side by side with us and keep getting knocked out,” Motyka said. “Whether it's the HOAs and what plants they decide to plant in the neighborhood; how and when they decide to prune those plants. If people have pest problems, they automatically get a pest control company a lot of times, which are using toxic chemicals that obviously leach into the food web.”

Motyka receives tips about owls in danger on a near-weekly basis. Most respond similarly to the one in San Tan. Even if developers aren’t thrilled to hear from her, nearly all are professional and work through proper channels to get the ground-dwelling birds safely relocated.

A crushing loss

However, things played out differently when Motyka says she attempted to contact construction company Richmond American Homes in 2020.

“They would ignore my calls,” said Motyka. “Fast forward a couple of months, and I get a concerned citizen calling me saying that she spoke to a land mover that was going to be scraping before development and told them there were burrowing owls there, and then the borrow got run over. That concerned citizen called me. I proceeded to excavate the burrow as best I could, and then we found a dead owl in it that was crushed.”

Arizona’s Family reported that a representative of Richmond American Homes had been made aware of the burrowing owls’ presence during a Casa Grande Planning and Commission meeting in July of 2020, before the owl's killing.

After finding the crushed bird, Motyka thought the company would contact Wild at Heart and arrange to get the other owls relocated. Instead, a document from the U.S. Department of Justice explained how Richmond American Homes responded by hiring Jerry Ostwinkle, co-founder and CEO of Arizona Raptor Center (ARC), and Jennifer Jones.

“Jones, an environmental consultant, and Ostwinkle, a hobby falconer, contracted with a large

residential developer to destroy burrowing owl burrows and remove them from tracts under a development outside of Phoenix, Arizona,” the document states. “The defendants knew about MBTA permit requirements, and lied to the developer that they had the required MBTA approvals.”

The document states Ostwinkle and Jones harmed the owls and destroyed burrows without checking for chicks or eggs. Further, the pair were caught on video illegally capturing a burrowing owl on April 1, 2021, the document reports.

On January 25, 2022, Ostwinkle and Jones pleaded guilty to violating the MBTA. The court sentenced each to pay $1,500 in fines. Ostwinkle was also sentenced to six months of probation, while Jones was given three months of probation.

Though Richmond American Homes did not respond to requests for comments, Ostwinkle did. He maintains activists and overzealous government agents unfairly targeted him, Jones, and Richmond American Homes.

“I received a packet from Fish and Wildlife Service that told me that I was allowed to temporarily capture to transport an owl that was in immediate danger, and that's what that was about,” Ostwinkle said. “All we were doing is taking that owl to Florence with another colony of ours that live out in the middle of nowhere.”

Ostwinkle pointed to his work rehabbing wildlife at ARC, past volunteer work with the AZGFD, and many decades of experience as a falconer as evidence he was an expert on raptors. He also questioned the effectiveness of artificial burrows while fiercely defending his actions.

"The owl in question was an owl that was giving a lot of problems," Ostwinkle said. "There's animal activists out there every day. They don't like the idea that we're destroying the burrow. They want these owls to go to these artificial burrows. So we're writing up a complete deal that we've done with our biologists on these artificial burrows, and I'm telling you, it's catastrophic; they fail."

Ostwinkle did not share the names of those biologists or published research supporting his claims.

Wild at Heart and the AZGFD on burrowing owl relocation

Bob Fox, the co-founder of Wild at Heart, defended the practice of relocating owls to artificial burrows.

“We have designed these over the years and adapted our designs working with David Johnson for the Global Owl Project, who's an amazing biologist, and has done years of research on artificial burrows,” Fox said. “So, I would say that Mr. Oswinkle's observations are incorrect.”

However, Fox stressed the importance of not painting all builders with the same brush.

“I think it's important to understand that while development is an ongoing process, many, if not most, of the developers are really positive about doing what's right for the environment,” Fox said.

Fox helped start the burrowing owl relocation program in the mid-1990s. He continues to do much of the trapping for relocations personally. Wild at Heart usually relocates from around 100 to 300 owls a year.

The AZGFD holds annual training events where environmental consultants who perform surveys for builders learn how to identify burrowing owls and the proper process for relocating them.

“It's really important that the preliminary surveys are conducted, and owls are found ahead of time,” AZGFD Raptor Management Coordinator Kenneth Jacobson said. “The last thing you want is for a project proponent to have all of their heavy equipment mobilized, pay for that mobilization, the crew is on-site, and then they get stopped because there's owls there. We want to avoid that.”

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

Tempe, AZ

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