Urban Bird Foundation in coordination with leading organizations Sierra Club Angeles Chapter and Banning Ranch Conservancy successfully prevented the loss of burrowing owl wintering and foraging habitat in the Banning Ranch area of Newport Beach, California. In a hearing on September 7, 2016, the California Coastal Commission upheld staff burrowing owl habitat protection recommendations and voted to deny the Banning Ranch development proposal that planned for the construction of 895 homes, a hotel, and shops on the Southern California coast. The approval of this project would have destroyed open space and eliminated critical burrowing owl habitat in Orange County.
After championing increased environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA) designations for Banning Ranch burrowing owls, the conservation organizations learned on August 25, 2016 that their efforts were successful when the California Coastal Commission issued a revised report that identified 64 acres of burrowing owl burrow and foraging habitat. The original Coastal Commission report identified only 1.5 acres and would have effectively eradicated the wintering owl habitat.
According to the California Coastal Commission revised report:
We think that the areas that are especially important to these owls are areas that are adjacent or close to their burrowing habitat and that form relatively large, unbroken expanses of grassland that are not subject to high levels of disturbance from residential, commercial, or recreational development. Therefore, we recommend that the Commission designate the 64 acres of grassland and ruderal habitats as ESHA because of their important ecosystem function of providing burrow habitat and foraging opportunities for the burrowing owl, and because they could be easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and development.
The recommended ESHA for burrowing owls and wetland protection means that development on Banning Ranch would need to be confined to less than 20 acres to avoid destruction of burrowing owl habitat.
“We are celebrating this incredible victory for California’s declining burrowing owl population,” said Scott Artis, Founder and Executive Director of Urban Bird Foundation and Burrowing Owl Conservation Network. “Burrowing owls have been declining in parts of its range for decades, due primarily to conversion of its grassland habitat. The owl is a California Species of Special Concern, has been virtually extirpated in some areas, and has even been the subject of a California Endangered Species Act listing proposal. And since the state is considered one of the most important wintering grounds for migrant burrowing owls it is imperative to protect the foraging and over-wintering habitat along Southern California’s coast.”
The Western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) is a California Species of Special Concern and is listed as Endangered in Canada and Threatened in Mexico. They are considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to be a Bird of Conservation Concern at the national level, in three USFWS regions, and in nine Bird Conservation Regions. At the state level, Western burrowing owls are listed as Endangered in Minnesota, Threatened in Colorado, and as a Species of Concern in Arizona, California, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. This owl is found in dry, open areas with low vegetation where fossorial mammals (e.g. ground squirrels) congregate such as grasslands, deserts, farmlands, rangelands, golf courses, and vacant lots in urban areas. It was once distributed broadly throughout western North America, but has found itself declining in numbers throughout all historic ranges in the last 40 years.