In 2000, the Mace Ranch Community Park was illegally tilled, affecting the Burrowing Owl habitat. As a result, in 2004, the City of Davis agreed to a conservation easement to protect 33 acres of the Burrowing Owl habitat at the Yolo County Grasslands Park. It was intended to replace the tilled, or disked, habitat at the Mace Ranch Community Park.
The City of Davis hired an independent company, Albion Environmental, Inc., to write up a management plan as part of the mitigation agreement for the new reserve to protect the Burrowing Owl habitat.
CEO and co-founder of the Burrowing Owl Preservation Society Catherine Portman claimed the city is failing to uphold the goals of this management plan.
“Grasslands is just one local example of a statewide failure of the current California Environmental Quality Act provisions. The public thinks mitigation for a taken habitat is happening,” Portman said.
According to the California Office of Historic Preservation, the California Environmental Quality Act requires that state and local public agencies identify any environmental impacts caused by projects and reduce or eliminate these impacts.
One of the main objectives of the plan is to uphold vegetation height and density in a range suitable for the year-round occupancy of Burrowing Owls. Another objective is to maintain a sufficient amount of burrows for Burrowing Owls to use as safety and for nesting in the reserve.
To ensure that these objectives are met, the management plan calls for biannual reports, in which the vegetation height is measured and the numbers of burrows are deemed sufficient.
In the first half of April, the height of vegetation should be no taller than five inches, and the number of burrows should maintain a minimum of five suitable burrows per acre. The second report occurs in July, in which the vegetation height should be no greater than four inches. The number of burrows should stay a minimum of five per acre.
“The central issue is that vegetation [height] has not been maintained in the standards of the plan,” said Jack Barclay, the independent biologist who wrote the management plan under Albion Environmental, Inc.
Since 2004, each biannual report has shown that the vegetation height has not been met, except once. In April 2005, after the first report, the vegetation height was not met, but the city was given four weeks to take corrective action. When it was measured again within two weeks of the corrective action, the standards were met.
“This isn’t even speculation. This is experts going out there [Grasslands Park] to measure it [vegetation height] and in 2009, you can see that they say that it is not going with standards that they require,” Portman said.
However, the city does not agree that they have failed to meet the management plan at the Burrowing Owl Reserve at Grasslands Park. According to a Grasslands Burrowing Owl Reserve Management Information document provided by the city, the plan was written for a single species without flexibility to address management challenges associated with climatic conditions, multi-agency management objectives or occurrences of other sensitive species.
“The city would like the plan to acknowledge the management challenges and allow greater flexibility in both methods and timing of vegetation management, primarily as it relates to meeting the initial compliance point in April,” said John McNerney, a wildlife specialist for the City of Davis. “However, we are still working on a solution that does not require significant change to the document.”
McNerney said that even though it would be effective to graze or mow prior to the month of April in order to ensure that the vegetation height would meet the standards in April, the soil is too soft.
The result of mowing or grazing when the soil is too soft would destroy natural burrows. These burrows would then have to be compensated by installing artificial burrows, which are considered ecologically inferior to natural burrows and would add cost to the management of the reserve.
“The soil is soft. The standards haven’t been met. So to say that it is too wet is not the point,” Barclay said. “If it had not been met, one would not have to go out there when it is wet.”
However, Barclay understands that it takes a lot to contain the vegetation in the conditions where the owls might be expected to occupy it.
“It requires a consorting type of effort to achieve this standard. It is not something that can be done once and you achieve it,” Barclay said.
Barclay said he is willing to cooperate with the city to meet the standards of the management plan.
“Our primary focus at this point is to find a solution to allow for earlier vegetation management. The current plan is to seek modification to the management plan to allow the use of herbicides, if not greater flexibility in the early compliance standard,” McNerney said.
But the use of herbicides is the one thing that the management plan prohibits to use in order to meet the compliance standards.
“I suggest that maybe [the city] take a portion of the reserve and explore more intensive management issues in a smaller area to see what it takes to meet the standards in the smaller scale,” Barclay said.
The Burrowing Owl Reserve at the Grasslands Park’s main goal is to have a suitable habitat for Burrowing Owls. In order to maintain such a habitat, the reserve must support vegetation that is acceptable for the Burrowing Owls.
“If the citizens of Davis care about Burrowing Owls, they need to send a message to the Davis City Council, mayor and city manager,” Portman said.
KAMILA KUDELSKA can be reached at email@example.com.