Skip to comments.WA: Wal-Mart's silence threatens burrowing owl
Posted on 10/16/2002 9:35:09 AM PDT by Trailer Trash
This story was published 10/16/02
By Mike Lee
Herald staff writer
When Wal-Mart plunked down in south Kennewick in August 2001, the company appeased Tri-City conservationists and state regulators with promises to aid the burrowing owls displaced by its supercenter.
The Bentonville, Ark.-based company made good on part of its promise by digging several artificial owl burrows on nearby vacant land.
But now that land is for sale, worrying conservationists who are watching large developments consume burrowing owl habitat at the edges of the Tri-Cities.
The situation is made worse because the region lacks a coordinated preservation approach for the owl species, which is being monitored by the state because of its declining population.
"If we don't get the attention of the jurisdictions and the developers, the species is going to go on the Endangered Species Act list," warned Paul LaRiviere, biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Pasco.
And that has substantial regulatory implications for an area that already has endured ESA protections for several Columbia-Snake salmon species.
"We're on a slippery slope toward an endangered species listing," agreed Rick Leaumont, conservation expert for the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society. "Now is the time when all of these people should be doing something."
In Wal-Mart's case, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Audubon Society are asking the company to make good on the second half of its pledge to boost the owl population's long-term health in the Mid-Columbia.
"We have committed to working on the identification of an appropriate long-term relocation site in the area and to other measures that will enhance our collective understanding of, and the public's appreciation of, the burrowing owl," Eric Strauss, real estate manager for Wal-Mart, said in December 2000.
The trouble is, one of the world's largest retailers now seems indifferent to its promises made before the megastore was built.
For the last several months, Wal-Mart hasn't replied to repeated state requests to start on the long-term mitigation program.
"No response whatsoever," is how LaRiviere described Wal-Mart's correspondence in the last year. Nor did a company spokeswoman respond to a Herald request for comment.
The owls' plight was emphasized last winter when state agents found all artificial burrows created by Wal-Mart had been sealed with one-way trap doors that prevented owls from re-entering their homes, which now are adjacent to a new housing project.
LaRiviere suspects Wal-Mart was behind efforts to keep owls off property it's now trying to sell. "It's kind of disturbing," he said, "because it shows almost malice."
When conversations started two years ago, Wal-Mart and the state seemed to agree on the need to preserve the 10-inch-tall owls, which typically use abandoned badger holes for homes but will make do with just about any kind of cavity from culverts to irrigation pipe.
A December 2000 letter outlines the state's hopes for Wal-Mart, including the possibility of a gift of $60,000 to $100,000 to continue burrowing owl research.
With a better understanding of the owls, LaRiviere and a cohort of concerned Mid-Columbians figured they could better lobby for proactive planning rather than waiting for the species to decline enough to draw federal attention.
"The significance to local jurisdictions, businesses ... and the public cannot be overemphasized," LaRiviere said. "Increased awareness will hopefully lead to better informed planning of development projects, preventing delay based on unforeseen impacts to owls."
The Kennewick Wal-Mart site was considered the best remaining owl habitat in the Tri-Cities. The next best, said Leaumont of the Audubon Society, was in west Pasco -- until it was prepared for homes that keep closing the gap between urban land and farm land. Only a thin strip is left in between.
Leaumont faults the city and Aho Construction for doing "next to nothing" to mitigate owl habitat damage. "If you lose the habitat, you lose the species," he said. "For wildlife, habitat is everything."
LaRiviere agrees that Pasco has done little to assess the effects of development as houses replace open land. As he talks, scrapers and graders sit ready for action on parceled tracts where owls once lived.
"They are all toast," LaRiviere said of once-plentiful burrows. "They are all gone."
At Pasco City Hall, however, there's a much different view of expansion.
City planner David McDonald said the $2,500 owl mitigation fee assessed against Aho was a Pasco first for burrowing owls and a precursor to at least two more similar fees expected as about 2,500 homes are built between roads 68 and 100. The money is to be used for owl education projects or to build artificial burrows.
McDonald said the contractor also was told not to disturb burrows during breeding and nesting season, and he said the city is filling in its prescribed urban growth boundary, which essentially leaves everything else for farms and habitat.
Aho representatives were unavailable for comment.
LaRiviere is convinced that burrowing owls can live close to humans and that maintaining owl habitat doesn't need to be onerous for developers, especially those who approach the state seeking help for proactive protections.
"We haven't stopped any of the developments," LaRiviere said. "But at least they are a little more sensitive. ... With even minimal protection, you can still get these owls to use these sites."
Do 'burrowing owls' eat moles instead of mice?
Are they the larval stage of those things in the movie 'Tremors'?
The McArthur Honors Campus of FAU is in Jupiter, in a heavily wooded area, where the birds thrive. However, the main campus is in Boca. Boca has grown up around the campus, less than a mile away is a mall with valet parking at Saks. The owls that burrow there have been living side by side with humans for thirty years.
The university has attempted to identify the burrows, using pickets and crime scene tape.These birds duck down in their burrows until they hear lawnmowers approaching and then they hop up to see what's going on and are grimly reaped. I am always tempted to spray little chalk outlines nearby.
If these birds are endangered it is because they are too stupid to live.