The wind whispers through the silvery green grasses as Alex Froese’s arm disappears into a dark hole in the ground of a prairie pasture near Melita in southwestern Manitoba in July.
She gently pulls out a baby owl. Then another, and another, passing them to her assistant, who puts them in a bucket.
“It’s the best day of the year,” says Froese, director of the non-profit Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Project.
“It’s amazing every year to manage them and put them together and know that the reason these young people are there is because of our program and the work that I have done.”
Froese dedicated the last 13 years of his life to warding off a local extinction of burrowing owls.
Over the years, Froese has released about 215 into the wild, including five pairs and 14 young this year.
His program is small. It releases up to 10 pairs a year and some of their young, although some babies are brought to overwinter at the Winnipeg Zoo to help seed the next generation of releases. Some have also come from conservation organizations like the Saskatchewan Burrowing Owl Interpretive Center to boost genetic diversity. Only one adult has ever returned to its natal burrow.
The endangered species has suffered precipitous declines, like many other grassland bird species.
In 1982, Manitoba Natural Resources detected 76 breeding pairs. These low numbers sparked a breeding and reintroduction program, with owls from Ontario, Saskatchewan and North Dakota moved and released in Manitoba.
The efforts did not last.
Over the past decade, Manitoba’s population has grown from zero to a peak of about 80 individuals in the mid-2000s.
Three breeding pairs and several solitaries have been found in the southwest from 2020 to 2022. This is up from previous years.
Froese admits that in a larger context, it’s a drop in the ocean. A federal recovery strategy targets 3,000 breeding pairs in the western provinces; there are currently less than 1,000.
Fragmentation – when a landscape is divided, usually by roads – plays a role, but much of the problem can be blamed on habitat loss from agriculture, oil extraction and mining. other developments.
About half a dozen oil pump jack sites are within sight of Froese’s nests, right in the middle of farmland that was once native prairie.
“Usually you won’t find burrowing owls just hanging around in an area where you have a continuous human presence and noisy machinery,” says Froese.
Wild owls have appeared in the area south of Melita, so an artificial nesting site was established there last year.
There are fewer natural burrows because there are fewer foxes, badgers, ground squirrels and other burrowing mammals to leave behind, Froese says. The holes that exist are not ideal as they can be more easily dug up.
Salvage projects like his opt for something sturdier: they bury a system of hard plastic buckets and corrugated tubing underground.
In addition to being banded, the owls undergo a medical examination each summer.
A baby owl wrapped in cloth like a burrito squirms in the hands of Assiniboine Park Zoo associate veterinarian Dr. Charlene Berkvens as she takes blood samples to determine which babies are the fittest and most capable of stay in nature.
Others will not migrate to southern Mexico as they naturally would, at least not this year. Some owls will overwinter at the zoo to participate in the breeding and reintroduction program next year.
“That trip to Mexico is getting harder and harder,” Berkvens says.
Some released in recent years have been fitted with radio transmitters. This allowed researchers to track their movements.
“We’ve seen them die from being hit by cars, we’ve seen them die from being run over, but extreme weather events also have a significant impact,” Berkvens said.
“We’ve had storms of them that have blown and killed many…. Climate change is playing a part.”
Growing pressures and the uncertain fate of the species weigh on Froese.
“Losing even just one can be quite devastating,” she says.
The biggest threat facing the stimulus package is funding cuts, Froese says.
Froese’s work is made possible through corporate contributions and public donations.
The Burrowing Owl Recovery Project has not received any financial support from the federal or provincial governments for the past four years.
“It’s really disheartening to put in so much work and effort and care so much about it, because it’s not just a job for me, it’s my life, it’s part of my identity, it’s It’s my passion, so it’s really hard…that you don’t see that value.”
This raises bigger questions about how we decide which species warrant a robust, publicly funded recovery effort, which don’t, and why.
Rainforest, Arctic and charismatic megafauna like polar bears are all supported by international campaigns that are not seen with the grasslands and their birds, Froese says.
WATCH | Alex Froese explains what motivates her to help burrowing owls:
The Weekend Morning Show (Manitoba)9:58Burrowing owls face new challenges in southwestern Manitoba
She thinks grassland ecosystems are not as valued for their ecological benefits and importance to biodiversity. With more awareness, Froese thinks the burrowing owl could be the icon of the endangered native prairie.
“They’re not going to come back without help,” she said.
“My passion kind of carried me and pushed me to keep going, because if I don’t do this job, who does?”
The answer could one day be someone like Zoey Bostick.
The 11-year-old is an avid birdwatcher and her father, Tracy Bostick, won a draw to attend Baby Owl Banding Day in July with her and her baby brother after donating to the project.
“I think the challenges their generation is facing are pretty daunting, but it’s going to take people like Alex, who’s leading this program, and then the next generation of people to keep going,” Tracy says.
“It is important that they are here to find out more.”
Zoe, gently holding an owl in her hands, says she never thought she’d have a chance to see, let alone interact with, such an endangered bird.
“It makes me feel like a part of it and really makes me feel like I support this kind of work.”