A young burrowing pokes its head out of a hole in a park in Pembroke Pines, Fla., Sunday, April 20, 2008. The greatest threat to the burrowing owl community is habitat destruction, caused primarily by land development.

J. Pat Carter/AP FILE

They used to be regular tenants of canal banks and dirt lots around the East Valley, but progress has cut into the local burrowing owl population.

The owls, which still have a presence on some undeveloped land in the East Valley, are not endangered in Arizona but are protected under federal law. If found on a construction site, they must be safely removed and relocated.

“They used to be along every canal bank and vacant lot in Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek,” said Randy Babb, a biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Of course, now you can’t find a vacant lot or canal in those areas. All of those habitats are gone. … I don’t think we have the fear that they will disappear, but like other animals, they’ve suffered in the face of land abuse.”

Burrowing owls are endangered in Canada and Colorado and are on conservation — or “species of special concern” — watch lists in Florida, among other states. In the West, their preferred habitat is creosote flats, land typically used for housing and other development.

Wild At Heart, a Cave Creek-based conservation organization, has identified at least 17 East Valley sites — mostly in Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek — where owls have recently been observed.

Queen Creek spokesman Marnie Schubert said the town’s street and public-works crews have not had construction delays due to owl sightings.

“We have had staff run into them while doing general work on washes or roadways,” Schubert said. “When that happens, we’ll have some experts come out and remove them. There has been little impact.”

Chandler spokesman Jim Phipps recalls three projects in the city requiring owl removal: At Chandler Municipal Airport, Veterans Oasis Park — where some of the birds were returned — and the San Tan Vista Water Treatment Plant, which the city operates with Gilbert.

Preserving wildlife does not have to conflict with progress, said Bob Fox, co-founder of Wild At Heart, which since 1993 has built 5,000 burrows around the state for relocated owls.

“Projects aren’t really halted,” Fox said. “They’re managed. The big thing is this is a process to help the species, because they are in decline. But you can still protect deadlines for developers.”

Trapping and removing owls from a site takes a matter of days, Fox said. If owls are found after construction begins, work can continue outside a 100-foot area around the burrow.

The owls are no threat to people, Fox said.

“They are amusing to watch, more than anything,” Fox said. “We’ve heard stories of people walking their dog, the dog gets a little too close to the burrow, and the owl will fly down and smack it on the head.”

Owls are treated for two months at Wild At Heart’s Cave Creek site before relocation.

Wild At Heart is helping develop owl habitats in Tucson and at Zanjero Park in Gilbert.

“Arizona is one of the few states that is doing anything to help the species,” Fox said. “I’d like to think Wild At Heart is a big part of that, but we also have a forward-thinking Game and Fish Department and people in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that saw the potential for this endeavor to be possible. Without the help of the government, it doesn’t happen.”

CONTACT WRITER: (480) 898-6301 or dzeiger@evtrib.com

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