The plight of burrowing owls on the Canadian Prairies is being further threatened by cuts.
A program dedicated to the endangered species is at risk of dying out as public funding for ecological projects dries up, according to the founder of the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program.
“There’s a lot of sadness. I’ve poured my heart and soul into this project and into these owls,” said program director and initiator Alex Froese.
Froese, 39, who studied the owls while completing her masters research, said the bird count dropped to 10 in Manitoba in 2012.
She began the recovery project in the following year to reintroduce the population back to the south-west portion of the province. The program also researches owl habitat, reproduction and survival, and educates the public about the species.
So far, she has helped hatch and reintroduce about 120 owls back into the wild.
Now she is concerned the program will come to an end, which means it won’t be able to monitor and care for the birds, because funding through public grants has been drying up in recent years.
“This year all of the owls will be set free in the wild, and they will no longer be held over,” she said, unless the program finds new donors.
Froese usually hires a couple of field assistants to record owl activities and behaviours and collect data on nesting and breeding.
She said funding from student job grants that no longer exist previously covered the fees to travel around the two-border region — near Saskatchewan and the United States — to track the birds.
In addition to tens of thousands in private donations, Froese said in the past more than a combined $400,000 came from provincial and federal grant programs related to ecological, sustainable development and habitat stewardship.
But now those public grants are no longer funding the program, which she estimates costs around $100,000 a year to run.
Froese creates artificial burrows or nests for the returning feathered creatures to live in following spring migration.
Typically ten or so birds are fledged or hatched and then grow up to fly away for the icy cold months.
Seven pairs of birds are currently nesting at a main site in Broomhill, Man. One pair has laid four eggs, and the rest are expected to lay eggs within the week, Froese said.
There is no single factor contributing to this species being endangered in the province, she said.
“Without help, the owls, I think, don’t really have a chance of making it off the endangered species list and they’ll likely be extirpated from Manitoba in the next decade,” she said.
Since finding her passion for the birds with cartoon-like movements and expressions about a decade ago, Froese started surveying the land and working closely with landowners in southwestern Manitoba.
The program director said she felt some of the property owners around these areas were being “secretive” about discovering burrowing owls and were worried about what might happen to their land as a result.
“I live out there for four months of the year, and getting to know landowners and just understanding their reservations, but also being able to educate them and talk a little bit,” she said.
Froese said the ripple effects of declining biodiversity and conversion of grassland ecosystems into pastures and cropland across North America caused by human activity are a huge problem for flora and fauna such as burrowing owls.
“We’re just going to see continued declines of grassland species, and we don’t know what the effects are of that,” she said. For example, these ground-nesters rely on foxes, badgers and gophers to dig holes for them to settle in, and the birds eat 1,800 rodents and 7,000 insects over the summer, according to the program website.
Flooding and predation have been some of the biggest challenges that have forced the program to change its field locations in the past.
Now the COVID-19 pandemic has halted much of its work, other than her own contributions.
“Our public funding has been substantially cut or non-existent,” she said.
“Because of that a lot of our activities have been scaled back.”
Before winter, the program would usually hold back some young from each nest that become the breeding and release population for the following year.
Her partners at Assiniboine Park Zoo would normally care for the birds over the winter months.
The Winnipeg zoo provides approximately $45,000 each year in the form of housing, veterinary checks and genetic testing to ensure inbreeding is not occurring. Froese said all of these contributions will continue if there is enough new funding — possibly from private donors — to keep the rest of the project alive.