Project helps endangered owls
           By Arisa Yokoyama

Scout has spent more than half his life visiting thousands of people each year as part of a public education campaign about the plight of his species.  
Scout is a burrowing owl–the only species of owl that digs holes to live in–with an expected lifespan of 12 to 15 years. He’s one of 54 burrowing owls at the Kamloops Wildlife Park breeding recovery project, which began in 1990 with only five of the diminutive birds.

Dawn Brodie, head of the recovery project, said the park’s breeding operation is the largest and most successful in Canada.

Between 1983 and 1990, Washington State wildlife officials donated 430 owls to recovery areas in B.C. The Kamloops Wildlife Park now has 54 owls–a more than tenfold increase over its original five. Each year the project keeps 18 owls (nine males and nine females) and releases the remaining ones to the wild.

But only 15 cases of burrowing owls living in the B.C. wilderness have been reported.

"A lot of people ask me . . . what’s the point of doing the repairing if they’re going to die out anyway. But I feel we are doing a big effort here," Brodie said.

Dr. Tom Dickinson, a biology instructor at the University College of the Cariboo, said the success of wildlife recovery programs rest not only on how many of the animals can be bred, but also on whether those born will be able to sustain their population in the wild.

"I used to see dozens of native owls in the B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan grasslands in the 1970s, but I only saw one in 1994," Dickinson said, adding that ensuring suitable habitat for endangered species is just as important as breeding programs.

"These two conditions of breeding owls and sustaining their environment go hand-in-hand. If we just keep releasing the juvenile owls into the wild where crop pesticide is used, they will die from eating the prey in the grassland."

Dickinson said large areas of natural grasslands are disappearing in B.C. Intensive agriculture and urbanization have reduced the available prairie-like terrain required by the burrowing owl and other species.

In 1990, Dickinson worked with the recovery program making artificial burrows for the owls. In 1995 he helped create the Lac Du Bois Provincial Park, a 20,000-hectare home for endangered species.

Burrowing owls can dig in suitable soil, but B.C.’s soil is too hard so they take over the abandoned burrows of mammals like badgers, coyotes and ground squirrels, whose declining numbers means fewer ready-dug burrows for the owls to nest in.

Although the pint-sized owl fell onto the B.C. endangered species list in the 1970s, its numbers had dwindled to almost none by the 1950s.

Historical nesting areas include Osoyoos, Oliver, Penticton, Vernon, the Okanagan Landing, Kamloops and Douglas Lake. Currently the Okanagan Valley and the Thompson-Nicola regions are the most inhabitable places in B.C. for the burrowing owl.

According to the federal environment ministry, the owl’s status was upgraded from threatened to endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in 1996. The bird is also legally designated under the federal Wildlife Act as endangered and was the mascot of the World Wildlife Fund for 1998. The federal government is considering protective legislation for species at risk and has proposed a National Stewardship Fund of between $250 and $600 million.