ADOT, Valley nonprofit steps up to save owls from South Mountain Freeway construction

The South Mountain Freeway construction in Southern Phoenix isn't just affecting the commute. It's also having a big impact on wildlife.

In particular, the burrowing owl, a bird that lives underground and is threatened in the southwest. Now, ADOT and a Valley non-profit are making sure these owls don't get buried alive.

The South Mountain Freeway the largest highway project in Arizona history, a 22-mile freeway that will bridge the West Valley and the Southeast Valley. The freeway will help eliminate congestion on the Broadway Curve, but it's already eliminated homes of the Burrowing Owls.

"It's amazing how many people who have been lifelong residents of Arizona who've never hear of burrowing owls, and the fact they do live underground," said Bob Fox, found of Wild At Heart. It's a wildlife rehabilitation center in Cave Creek that cares for orphaned and injured birds of prey.

The petit predator is small enough to hold in one's hand. It's not like other owls, as it flutters around in broad daylight, and is the only owl in the world that lives underground.

In growing cities like Phoenix, however, living underground can be a death sentence.

"Very often, without awareness, people could come in and bulldoze the ground, and the birds would be buried alive, their homes would be destroyed, they'd have no place to go. So then they would be out in an area that was not suitable for them and would not survive," said Fox.

Fox houses over a hundred Burrowing Owls at his nonprofit. His wife, Sam, rehabilitates many of the birds.

"Many times, they come in so badly damaged there's nothing that we can do other than provide a calm quiet place for them to pass," said Fox.

The Burrowing Owls at Wild At Heart aren't sick or injured. They have been pushed out of their homes by the freeway expansion. Over the past 30 years, Burrowing Owl numbers have taken a nosedive, largely due to urban expansion.

"Bird speak to our souls when we see them flying, and to remove any of those species is really kind of hard. We don't want to lose those," said Fox.

Burrowing Owls are endangered in Minnesota, threatened in Colorado, and a "Species of Concern" in eight states, including Arizona. When the South Mountain Freeway project was announced, Fox and his team rolled up their sleeves.

"As it moved forward, any time a Burrowing Owl was seen near an impacted area, I would get the call, and we go out and remove it," said Fox, who has been working with ADOT for over a year to safely capture the owls along the freeway footprint.

ADOT spokesman Dustin Krugel says crews are trained to spot burrowing owls, and stop construction immediately if they find one.

"We had over 90 surveys done that covered 3,500 acres looking for Burrowing Owls, and that's actually double the footprint of the South Mountain Freeway," said Krugel.

Krugels says most owls have been captured in agricultural areas along Dobbins Road, such as Laveen and Tolleson, as well as the area of the I-10/Loop 202 interchange. Many of the Burrowing Owls were found less than a hundred feet from the freeway, and they burrow little holes in the soft dirt right at the edge of the cement. They get under the cement, and they have easy access to the water at the bottom of the canal.

"We try to avoid all Burrowing Owls at all costs," said Krugel. "It's really a last resort that we have to relocate Burrowing Owls."

So far, ADOT has found about 50 Burrowing Owls, five times more than their average project. They've found adults, young, and even eggs. The birds are transported to Wild At Heart, and live there for about nine months. Then volunteers build them a new home.

A "hack site", or a steel frame draped in netting, serves as the temporary home for the owls, far away from freeway construction. Hack sites are scattered across the deserts, in places like Laveen, Maricopa and the San Tan Valley.

In the wild, Burrowing Owls don't dig their own homes, and take over old burrows abandoned by small mammals. So at the hack site, volunteers do the dirty work for them.

"The pits are about four-and-a-half feet deep," said Fox. "The burrow itself, the nesting chamber, he's actually upside down five-gallon buckets, and there's tubing that goes up about 14 feet to ground level in a looping configuration."

One particular hack site is being built by ASU volunteers, and will be monitored for 30 days by volunteers from Audubon Arizona.

"We feed and water the owls every day while they're in the tent, and then the fabric comes off, and it's up to the owls if they want to stay or if they want to go," said Kathy Wise with Audobon Arizona.

Each bird Fox places in the tent is tagged for tracking by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Ideally, the owls will mate on site, and when the netting comes off, they'll raise their young in a new, safer habitat. As Burrowing Owls elsewhere lose their homes, Fox and his volunteers will continue lending mother nature a hand.

"That's the one thing that I'm most proud of, is the response of the public to an issue and how much people really care about our wildlife issues," said Fox. "With everything else going on in the world, there still that huge concern for the natural world, and it's something we really need to stay in touch with."

Wild At Heart