Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.


Contact: Jeff Miller (510) 499-9185 Center for Biological Diversity
Craig Breon (408) 252-3748 Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society
Kim Delfino (916) 313-5809 Defenders of Wildlife
More Information: Burrowing Owl web, Suppressed Report

Sacramento, CA - Documents obtained by environmental groups through a California Public Records Act request reveal that the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) suppressed an agency report recommending that the western burrowing owl be considered for endangered or threatened status under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). The improperly withheld report evaluated a formal petition to list the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) submitted by conservation organizations in April of 2003. The California Fish and Game Commission voted 4-0 in December 2003 to reject the burrowing owl petition, based in part on a second contradictory DFG report blatantly biased against listing and widely criticized by conservationists and owl experts as fraught with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. In contrast, the report DFG refused to release to the Commission and the public recommended that the owl be immediately protected as a “Candidate” species while a year-long status review was conducted by DFG.

“The responsibility for the state’s failure to protect a clearly imperiled species lies with former Fish and Game Director Robert Hight,” said Jeff Miller, spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We call on Governor Schwarzenegger and the new Fish and Game Director to protect the burrowing owl under the California Endangered Species Act and to investigate this ‘owlgate’ incident. The Fish and Game Commission should reverse their decision in light of significant information that was deliberately withheld from them.”

“It appears the outgoing administration suppressed their own biologists’ report recommending listing and twisted the facts around to arrive at a recommendation that denies protection to a declining species to appease development interests,” stated Kim Delfino, California Director for Defenders of Wildlife.

“ It’s a shame that the Commissioners weren’t given both reports by their staff,” said Craig Breon of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. “Government officials making key decisions should be given complete information, and it’s clear that here they were not,” added Breon.

Although two burrowing owl reports were written by DFG, coming to greatly differing conclusions, only one report was publicly released. The released report was condemned by leading owl experts (who were not paid for their comments) as biologically flawed, containing numerous errors and speculative conclusions about the status of the species. The released report was supported by two biological consultants with little owl expertise that were paid by agricultural and development interests to testify. The DFG staff did not disclose the existence of the second report to the Commission, depriving them of a balanced view in which to make their decision.

Had the Commission accepted the petition, the owl would have been designated as a “Candidate” species while a year-long status review was conducted by DFG. Candidate species receive the same protection under the California Endangered Species Act as endangered or threatened species. The Commission is scheduled to ratify its December decision rejecting the petition on February 5, and some of the petitioning organizations have vowed to file a lawsuit challenging the decision.

The western burrowing owl is a small ground-nesting bird of prairie and grassland habitats. Burrowing owls in California rely upon burrows dug by ground squirrels for nests, and require suitable habitat consisting of open fields with adequate food supply for foraging, low vegetative cover to allow owls to watch for predators, and roosting sites. Many historical accounts by naturalists reported the species was one of the most common birds in California. Burrowing owls ranged throughout the Central Valley, were found in suitable habitat in coastal areas from Marin County south to the Mexican border, and sparsely inhabited desert areas in northeastern and southeastern California. Owls have been in continuous decline throughout the state since at least the 1940s. Burrowing owls are threatened primarily by habitat loss to urban development and eradication of ground squirrels and other burrowing rodents. The common practice of relocating owls from development sites is accelerating local declines in rapidly urbanizing areas.

Burrowing owls have declined precipitously statewide in the last two decades. Breeding owls are in decline in half their geographic range in California and have been completely or nearly eliminated from Sonoma, Napa, Marin, western Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties. The censored DFG report concluded listing the burrowing owl may be warranted due to numerous factors: owl abundance through most of the species’ range has declined steadily since the 1940s; 60% of known owl colonies disappeared in the decade from the 1980s to the 1990s and this trend appears to be continuing; the number of pairs of breeding owls statewide declined 4-7% per year during the 1980s to the 1990s and the declines continue in most areas of the state; breeding populations have been completely or nearly eliminated from 30% of the California counties within their range and declines continue in an additional 60% of counties; remaining owls are largely concentrated in a very small portion (2%) of the state; and those populations may not serve as source populations for declining owl colonies elsewhere.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to the protection of native species and their habitats. The Center works to protect and restore natural ecosystems and imperiled species through science, education, policy, and environmental law.


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