State regulators decline to list the burrowing owl


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Aug 29, 2002
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From Al Kalin's column in IVP- on-line

State regulators decline to list the burrowing owl

I had quite an education last week when I traveled to Sacramento with Miguel Monroy, assistant county agricultural commissioner, and Michel Remington, Imperial Irrigation District's supervisor of environmental compliance.

The three of us testified before the state Fish and Game Commission as it considered whether the western burrowing owl qualifies for protection under California's threatened or endangered species law.

After hearing half a day of testimony from both sides of the fence, the four commissioners ultimately voted unanimously not to list the burrowing owl.

In making this decision the commission relied on the advice of its own Fish and Game field staff as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dennis Murphy, research biologist and professor at the University of Nevada, gave a compelling testimony against the listing of the burrowing owl. Murphy has petitioned the state Fish and Game Commission five times in the past to list a species as endangered or threatened and has been successful in three of his attempts.

Murphy agreed with the state Fish and Game staff that there is not enough information on the population or range of the western burrowing owl to warrant listing the owl at this time and urged the Fish and Game staff to continue studying the burrowing owl to gain more information. In addition, he felt there were many more species that were far more deserving as a candidate for the Endangered Species Act than the burrowing owl.

Many of those testifying against listing of the burrowing owl felt it would be much more beneficial to educate urban developers and the agricultural community about how to manage the burrowing owl to increase its numbers than a legal challenge, which could ultimately create a detrimental effect on the owl's population.

State Fish and Game Commissioner Bob Hattoy was the California and Nevada regional director for the Sierra Club from 1981 to 1992. The Sierra Club is one of the most well-known environmental groups in the United States.

Even though Commissioner Hattoy voted against listing the western burrowing owl, he did voice some concerns.

"I realize that Imperial Valley has a healthy growing population of burrowing owls," Hattoy said. "But in the rest of the state, urban development is out of control and I wonder what that means for the burrowing owl in the future."

Before voting, the commission urged that the petitioners, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, to work with state Fish and Game staff and the farm community to develop a management plan that would increase the western burrowing owl in California.

Much of the testimony by members of the CBD was about the Imperial Valley and many of their facts were incorrect. I had to wonder that if that much of their testimony was wrong, then how much of the rest of it was flawed.

In one example, they jumped on the water transfer bandwagon and said that as a result of fallowing the burrowing owl numbers would diminish. It was obvious they didn't realize the burrowing owl lives along the drains and canals in the Imperial Valley, not in the fields. Fallowed acreage will have little effect on the owl population and may even lead to an increase in population as stubble is left in the fallowed fields to reduce dust. The undisturbed stubble will probably harbor more food for the burrowing owl in the form of mice and crickets.

No environmental group in America files more endangered species cases at a more feverish pace than the Center for Biological Diversity. Public records show that from 1994 to 1999 alone, the CBD and its lawyers filed 58 lawsuits, an average of one every 32 days.

So far the group has obtained federal Endangered Species Act protection for 280 species and the designation of over 38 million acres of "critical habitat" from Texas to Alaska.

True to form, shortly after the Fish and Game Commission voted to not list the western burrowing owl, staff from the CBD vowed to sue the state over their decision instead of working with the state developers and farm community.

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