Cattle group reaches out to save owls


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They may seem unlikely partners, but a group that represents cattle farmers says cows and owls are a natural fit.

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They may seem unlikely partners, but a group that represents cattle farmers says cows and owls are a natural fit.

Manitoba Beef Producers is funding work by the Manitoba Burrowing Owls Recovery Program, with the intention of reviving the bird’s dwindling numbers.

“We decided to support the burrowing owl program because it’s such a good synergy between the owls and beef cattle,” said Melissa Atchison, a research specialist with MBP.

Jessica Riach with the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program holds a burrowing owl for visitors to meet during the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair at the Keystone Centre on Tuesday. (Tim Smith/The Brandon Sun)

“Without beef cattle, there wouldn’t be burrowing owls [in southwest Manitoba] because we maintain their wildlife habitat.”

Bindi — a wide-eyed, brown-and-white speckled burrowing owl — was a hit with children who stopped at the Manitoba Beef Producers booth at the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair on Tuesday.

This marks the 11th year for the program, which has reintroduced 72 pairs that produced 64 nests and fledged 166 young.

Despite those numbers, the owls are migratory birds and don’t always return to the same location to nest. Breeding pairs, which once existed in southwestern Manitoba in the hundreds, numbered two last year.

The program is working to change that by working with local landowners to maintain grasslands that serve as protective habitat for the owls, which also helps other grassland-dependent birds, boosts biodiversity and mitigates climate change by sequestering tons of carbon.

Director Alex Froese founded the program after studying the species in southwestern Manitoba for her wildlife biology thesis.

Froese said there was a small influx of the birds between 2006 and 2009, but prior to that there hadn’t been any breeding pairs for several years.

“It was looking really not great for burrowing owls,” Froese said. “It looked like they might be extirpated from the province.”

Despite their name, the owls don’t dig their own burrows to house their nests. They nest in burrows dug by other animals such as badgers, foxes and ground squirrels.

In the 1970s, Froese said, there were an estimated 100 pairs of burrowing owls across southwestern Manitoba and as far east as Winnipeg. In the ’80s, after official surveys were introduced, 76 pairs were counted. Their number then rapidly fell, and they withdrew to the southwest corner of the province. By 1986, there was only one known pair in the province.

They’re currently listed as endangered under Manitoba’s Endangered Species Act and by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Froese said there are numerous reasons for the fall in numbers, including cool and wet seasons, and the conversion of their grassland habitat for other purposes such as crops, roads and energy exploration.

At the time of her thesis study in 2010-12, there were a few pairs in southwestern Manitoba. But then, wet years flooded nests and the owls stayed away.

For six years, there were no breeding couples here, Froese said, just individual owls spotted here and there, until 2020 when a pair of burrowing owls showed up at an artificial nest burrow the program had installed.

The organization has installed more than 350 underground artificial nests made of weeping tile that protect nesting owls and their young better than natural burrows, and worked with more than 60 landowners to improve habitat for the owls and other grassland bird species at risk.

Atchison is one of the cattle producers who have had artificial burrows installed on their pastureland.

“The cattle keep it grazed down just the right amount that the owls can see and hunt,” Atchison said. “They need open areas adjacent to wood lots, so cattle producers maintain those habitats for them.”

Froese was excited to report that in 2020, 2021 and 2022, parent owls have been back in Manitoba. In 2022, three male owls established territories here using the artificial nest burrows. One of the males paired with a conservation-bred owl and fledged seven young, bringing the total pairs to three last year.

“It was so exciting and just really meant a lot because I thought that might be our last year too, and I’m like, ‘Look, they’re coming back!’” she said.

While it had success on the ground — or underground, in the case of burrowing owls — that was around the time the program lost its public funding. Froese said the federal government diverted the money to other projects.

“Luckily, we’ve had some private organizations show up, like the [Manitoba] Beef Producers, that have helped us with continuing on our program,” she said.

Looking to the future, Froese said her program plans to fit owls with trackers. They haven’t had much success when it comes to releasing captive birds and having them return, so they want to solve the question of where they are going. It doesn’t matter if they’re ending up in Saskatchewan or parts of the United States, she said — the program helps.

“That’s still OK because they’re a part of the population,” Froese said.


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