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[whitespace] Burrowing Owl
Bird in the Hand: Already the burrowing owl is almost completely gone from Sonoma, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Orange counties, largely due to the same development pressures that are bearing down here. The Santa Clara Valley is one of the three California population centers for the bird, which also lives in the Imperial and Central valleys. At last count in 1997, there were between 120 and 140 of the owls in Santa Clara County and about 47 in San Jose.

Owl Town

Through a seldom-used application of environmental law, officials in Santa Clara are bulldozing some of the last burrowing owl habitat left in the valley. But that's OK--when the guilt gets to be too much, they can think of Byron.

By Jim Rendon

CRAIG BREON DROPS HIS VOICE to a low murmur and reaches for his binoculars. Standing on a hot asphalt parking lot in north Santa Clara, the 33-year-old environmentalist with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society points out a rare and increasingly threatened species.

Happily nesting in the midst of this semi-developed hiccup in the valley's seamless mat of housing, freeway and office park is a burrowing owl, one of only 140 such birds left in the valley.

"Right there, it's over there," he says, pointing at a grassy brown mound on a tiny trapezoid of land that somehow escaped the asphalt truck. Less than a foot tall, the burrowing owl stands in front of a dark hole in the mound. It's easy to miss. The mottled brown markings blend the bird almost perfectly with the earth and grass around it. Through his binoculars, Breon watches a gray fuzz-ball chick dart from under a bush into the dark recess of the burrow behind. The bird seems to pay no attention to its scampering offspring; instead, it scans the world beyond its burrow with piercing yellow eyes.

But the bird's vigilance won't help her prepare for what's about to happen here. This island mound, and 100 other acres of owl nesting and foraging habitat--home to nine pairs of owls--is scheduled to be turned up and paved over. An office complex, a power substation and a soccer park will rise in this section of north Santa Clara. Right where this owl now sits, teenagers in fluorescent vests will soon direct SUVs overflowing with kids eager for a Saturday at Great America.

"There's a good chance that the owl will go extinct from this region," says Breon, lowering his binoculars. "And it's not because city councils don't know about it; it's because they're choosing to let the owl go extinct."

THE CITY OF SANTA CLARA, which owns this largely undeveloped plot bordered by Tasman and Great America, has in the past few years worked hard to make cash off its surplus property in the valuable area known as the Golden Triangle. Most recently, the city negotiated one long-term lease on 77 acres of the land for a cool $4 million a year.

But there was the owl problem. Nine pairs of them, to be exact.

The burrowing owl, which lives in underground burrows left behind by ground squirrels, is protected on the federal level by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and is considered a species of special concern by the California Department of Fish and Game. Because of the owl's status, the city of Santa Clara, profits or no profits, couldn't just haul off and bulldoze the owls in their burrows--or at least not without what is known in the arcana of environmental law as "mitigation."

So, following in the footsteps of the state Department of General Services in the controversial development of the Agnews site, also home to several pairs of burrowing owls, the state Department of Fish and Game presented Santa Clara with a solution: buy land 40 miles away in Byron.

Since nine pairs of owls were documented on Santa Clara's property, the city was required to come up with 58.5 acres of owl habitat (6.5 acres for each pair of owls). And because owls don't take well to being physically moved (they won't adapt to a new "burrow," according to Fish and Game), city officials were pressed to find an area that already supported owls--something that many experts say is nearly impossible, given the level of development in the Santa Clara Valley.

The Agnews Developmental Center site, portions of which have been sold by the state to Sun Microsystems, Cisco and other development interests, is home to three pairs of burrowing owls. Though some local and state government officials, including Assemblyman Jim Cunneen, asked the state Department of General Services to set aside 19.5 acres on the 300-plus-acre site for owls, the department refused. In April 1998, Peter Stamison, the director of the Department of General Services, wrote to Cunneen, saying that preserving land elsewhere would be "more economical ... and will result in a better level of protection for the owl."

The state began looking for land elsewhere to protect in exchange for plowing under the burrows here. But with guidance from the state Department of Fish and Game, general services consultants began looking east and north. Forty miles away, in rural Byron just outside of Livermore, the state purchased 140 acres of rangeland for $900,000 ($6,500 per acre)--land that is already home to the owl, the San Joaquin kit fox and other threatened species. Though the agency was only required to put aside 19.5 acres, it plans to sell the rest of the acreage to others in need of mitigation land.

Santa Clara plans to buy the 58.5 acres it needs from the state, and has put down a deposit of $702,000, or $12,000 an acre. On this particular sale, the state is doubling its money.

"This does nothing to save the birds in the area or their habitat," admits Santa Clara Councilman John McLemore, who voted to approve the agreement. "You can't put a sign in the ground and point the bird to go 40 miles east."

The Byron mitigation bank is the most remote mitigation for a development project that Wilcox can recall in his experience at the Department of Fish and Game. State guidelines recommend not mitigating any further than 40 miles away from a proposed development. Byron is right at the edge of that guideline.

"We made the decision that we had a better chance at maintaining a significant population of owls as part of a larger reserve in Byron and in the Central Valley as opposed to maintaining the population in Santa Clara," Wilcox says.

McLemore is a little more succinct. "We have closed the door and sealed the hatch and these owls will die."

Burrowing Owl chicks
Courtesy of the Audubon Society

MITIGATION, setting aside some land in exchange for developing habitat of a rare animal, has been at the core of environmental legislation since the beginning, says Gregory Thomas, president of Natural Heritage Institute, an environmental law organization. "It is simply a reflection of the extent to which in this legal system and society, property rights are given the highest level of legal protection," he says.

Because the valley is so developed, habitat set-asides in the midst of suburban sprawl are generally considered to be less effective. The owl, which requires flat, open, low-altitude fields, often can survive in marginal habitat on levees, near runways and in unused fields surrounded by homes and development. But those slices of habitat will never support large numbers of owls. With Silicon Valley workers commuting from as far away as Tracy, creating a sprawl of housing tracts in between, off-site mitigation is suddenly getting much farther away.

"Byron, in Contra Costa County, was the closest available option," Wilcox says. "We had exhausted our options in Santa Clara County and southern Alameda County. The development pressures there make it problematic to preserve habitat."

Wilcox says that forsaking owls here for those in Byron is not problematic for the species as a whole, and may in fact be more beneficial for the overall numbers of birds in the state. "This is a good deal for the owl. The areas in which habitat is being preserved is part of a larger conservation area and will be managed specially for the owl."

Jack Barclay, a burrowing owl consultant for the city of San Jose, disagrees. "The population is more stable if it has a wider range; it is less subject to catastrophic events like flood and fire. Intuition tells you the species is more secure if it is spread out than if it is confined in one area," Barclay says.

Dave Plumpton, a biologist with HT Harvey and Associates, a local environmental consulting firm, says that 79 percent of the owl's population lives in 2 percent of the state. "That is a disaster in the making right there," he says.

The real problem, Breon says, is that allowing the state to open the door in Byron will cause a flood of environmental mitigation there, allowing this valley and other hot real-estate markets to be developed to an unprecedented level.

"This Byron solution, everybody's hopping on it to try to buy their way out of the burrowing-owl problem," McLemore says.

Breon agrees, pointing out that the Port of Oakland is shopping for land in Byron to mitigate for its own development of burrowing-owl habitat. And Wild Lands Inc., a for-profit company that purchases and sells mitigation land on speculation, is also shopping in Byron, anticipating a run on owl habitat there.

WHILE EVERYONE involved laments the inevitable destruction of the owl population locally, no one is willing to take responsibility.

McLemore and Breon blame Fish and Game for allowing that to be an option, for not helping the city to find a better local reserve.

And everyone blames Silicon Valley's cities. What is missing, say environmentalists and state and local officials, is a binding regional plan to save the owls and habitat for many other rare and endangered species.

"I have tried to push the issue of a regional plan, but I cannot get the cities to sit down and talk collectively to make that happen," McLemore says in frustration.

Wilcox says the dearth of regional planning is one of the primary reasons his agency has more faith in the Byron reserve than any local effort.

Without a regional plan, conservation requirements are worked out on a development-by-development basis, leading to a Jackson Pollock-style splattering of office parks, housing tracts and open space, making local preserves less effective and long-distance mitigation more necessary.

Santa Clara has identified 30 more acres in the city that it plans to set aside for owls in an effort to compensate for its development. McLemore sees that as the big first step in creating a city owl plan.

Even if development were to stop right now, experts disagree about how much of a chance the owl really has in Santa Clara County. Plumpton says that it already may be too late. Even Wilcox does not think there will be a significant population of owls here into the indefinite future.

After six years of toiling to save scraps of land from the bulldozer blade, Breon has developed a sense of humor about his work. "This job is all about how to lose with grace and move on," he says, looking around the parking lot. "It's about how to get just enough small victories to keep going."

In an average year the victories are so few that the environmental lawyer has taken to calling Silicon Valley an ecological sacrifice zone. The owl, the red-legged frog, the tiger salamander, the bay checkerspot butterfly and the California clapper rail, among others, are dwindling to dangerously low levels.

But Breon remains hopeful. "We still have a few years left to implement a sound plan," he says, turning away from the watchful owl. "But we're close to the edge. Within five years it could be too late."

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From the January 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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