Guest Commentary: Burrowing Owls and Davis Elections

Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

By Catherine Portman

As candidates run to retain their elected positions they will tout issues they’ve supported to win citizen’s votes. There will be advertisements, slogans and even face mask images that imply the candidate supports certain issues. Lest there be any confusion about what the City of Davis has done for burrowing owls, I’ll recount a few “lowlights” of the city’s inaction and neglect of burrowing owls over my 20 years advocating for the owls.

In 2000 several natal burrows were disked at Mace Ranch housing development (Flatlander and Yolano Flame). The city did not pursue legal action against the developer for disking owlets into the ground.

The city, as the CEQA lead agency, was required to mitigate the destruction of the Mace Ranch owl colony. Mitigation was secured at Grasslands Park. A  Burrowing Owl Reserve of 60 acres was established.  In 2004, a Burrowing Owl Habitat Management plan (a legal requirement under CEQA) was developed that required the vegetation not exceed 4 to 5 inches, year round. The city never kept the vegetation within that standard height. (Sustain Environmental.  Documents provided on request. ) Pam Nieberg and I contacted city council members, the Wildlife Resource Specialist and the Open Space and Habitat Commission. The city did not comply with the Habitat Management Plan. Pam and I met with then City Manager, Dirk Brazil. He told us if there was no money for vegetation management, it would not happen! When the consultant, Sustain Environmental, consistently found the vegetation height not in compliance with the Habitat Management Plan, the city ended the consultant’s contract. No more breeding burrowing owls at the Reserve or Grasslands itself.

The Mace Ranch development included an 8 acre park, very near where the natal burrows had been disked.  In 2003 Pam Nieberg and I advocated with the Davis City Council to dedicate the entire 8 acre park as burrowing owl habitat: plant short native grasses and install a couple artificial burrows. Instead the Council voted to cut the acreage for burrowing owls to 3.5 acres. The owls reproduced there for about three years. But the city never kept the vegetation short. By the time the city put goats in, the mustard was 5 feet tall and even goats wouldn’t eat it. No more owls at Mace Ranch Park.

Wildhorse agriculture buffer once hosted breeding burrowing owls. Around 2004, Pam and I wrote letters, emails, and attended Open Space Commission meetings asking the vegetation be kept short to support the small burrowing owl colony. Mitch Sears told me that the ag buffer was not intended to be managed for a single species. I asked to see the management plan. There was no management plan. I asked Open Space to develop a management plan. In 2019, (yes, 15 years later!) Open Space developed a management plan to keep vegetation short on 4.3 of the 38 acre ag buffer. Too late, the owls are gone.

Since 1980 there has been a small colony of owls around the Mace Curve, 2nd St to Ikedas to I 80 (Institute for Bird Populations). A proposal to build a Marriott hotel at the corner of Mace Blvd and 2nd came before the city council.  The privately owned lot hosted a breeding pair of burrowing owls. Via the CEQA process, the city council accepted an Initial Study/Mitigated Negative Declaration as the appropriate level of environmental review with a special status species on site! So there would be no biological assessment of the impacts to the burrowing owls on site, nor the cumulative impacts to the local owl population. This is a horrendous abdication of the council’s responsibility as the lead agency, to decrease impacts to wildlife for projects the council approves!

The city owned land, purchased with Measure O funds, within the Mace Curve colony. The city sold a conservation easement which allowed an orchard and two, two story houses. The deed talks about wildlife and vista values of the conservation easement. There is no wildlife habitat in an orchard and the trees and the houses block the vista. Even when the city did purchase a conservation easement, they allowed land uses that degraded wildlife habitat.

The city still owns 25 acres along the Mace Curve (Mace 25).  Several environmentalists held meetings with each council member asking that the city secure a conservation easement with the Yolo Habitat Conservancy on Mace 25 to be managed as wildlife habitat. The bright spot of those meetings was one council member said he’d put a discussion of Mace 25 on the council’s agenda. That never happened and this was before COVID 19. No council member picked up the issue of how to keep Mace 25 public land and how to manage it. There have been two projects proposed that included all or part of Mace 25 in the project’s footprint. The city council has not communicated to developers that Mace 25 is not for sale, but by continuing to accept project proposals with Mace 25 in the footprint, the city tacitly concedes that Mace 25 will be sold and developed.

On March 6, 2020, Tracie Reynolds released the city’s “allow no owl” policy. To support a breeding pair near Mace 25, I asked the Open Space Commission if they would allow me to install artificial burrows away from the road and keep the vegetation short. The costs paid for by Burrowing Owl Preservation Society (BOPS). All past requests to manage city-owned land for burrowing owls were declined based on the city’s lack of funds. This time the management could happen without expense to the city. The city declined my proposal to enhance habitat for the owls. Tracie Reynolds, in consultation with the Wildlife Resource Specialist, John McNerney, the Assistant City manager, Ash Feeny and City Manager, Mike Webb decided they would intentionally neglect enhancements that would prevent vehicle collision deaths and allow the owls to survive. (go to to see email announcing “allow no owl” policy). Not one council member spoke to deny the city had adopted an “allow no owl” policy. There are no owls on the Mace Curve.

At every opportunity, for the past 20 years, the city has chosen not to support burrowing owls. So, if anyone running for a Davis office implies they have supported burrowing owls, call me for fact check.

Catherine Portman, Burrowing Owl Preservation Society burrowingowls.org

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    1. Ron Oertel

      I agree – an excellent summary of negligence – even on city-owned land.

      On a somewhat related note, can’t help but wonder if they also mishandled “Gilligan” (the bear).

    2. Ron Oertel

      And in the case of Mace 25, that negligence appears to be purposeful.

      Perhaps with the Residence Inn site, as well.

      Anyone notice how close the word “disk” is to “DISC”?

  1. Alan Pryor

    Following is the “Allow No Owl” policy memo Catherine Portman received from the City in Marchl 2020 to which she referred in her article. This memo was sent to her after she asked to install and maintain an artificial burrow on Mace 25 at her own expense. It is clear from the memo that it is the City’s of Davis’ intention to discourage owls from using city-owned property to prepare it for “urbanization”.

    Hi Catherine,

    I talked to Ash Feeney about this, who talked to Mike Webb. We do not have any direction from City Council to usher any particular course of action for the Mace 25 site (other than its status right now as commercial farmland) and to do so absent City Council direction (after analysis and recommendations from staff) would be premature in any event. This is not a staff level decision and we do not have Council direction to pursue development of such alternatives (i.e., burrowing owl habitat) at this time. 

    Furthermore, I talked to the City’s Wildlife Biologist, John McNerney, and it is his view that until the site is protected with an easement or other habitat-use policy, it would be ill-advised to make improvements that intentionally attract/retain special status species.  It is much better for the owls to be naturally displaced from the site (i.e., by allowing tall dense vegetation to grow along the western edge) than it is for them to be passively relocated/evicted prior to any urbanization.  Displaced owls are at greater risk of mortality than those allowed to move on their own.  If there is still a possibility that some or all of the site is developed/urbanized in the near future, the City’s Wildlife Biologist believes that the City should be doing what it can to prevent the owls from using the site (i.e., leaving the vegetation as tall and dense as possible, not installing artificial burrows).

    Tracie Reynolds
    Manager, Leases and Open Space

    1. Ron Oertel

      Well, I suppose you could at least say that the response is “forthcoming”, in that they’re not hiding their goal.

      Now, whether or not the city’s residents think that’s an appropriate response (or use of open-space lands preserved with Measure O funds) is an entirely different manner.

  2. Alan Pryor

    I was in all the meetings with every single one of the current Council members last year as we discussed the plight of our plummeting Burrowing Owl populations in Davis. They all said they supported discussing at the Council level the matter of managing the Mace-25 open space land and the nearby resident Burrowing Owls  – Gloria, Lucas, Brett, Will, and Dan – every one of them. Lucas even personally promised that he would attempt to put the matter on a future Council agenda. Yet this was never done.

    And not one of them has ever stood up since after sitting quietly and allowing our Wildlife Resources Manager, John McNearney, to intentionally let the nearby grasses grow to drive off two of the last remaining nesting pairs of Burrowing Owls in the City. So now after the skids were greased for the DISC developer by driving off the Burrowing Owls, our Council then unanimously approved a proposal to potentially allow the DISC developers to encroach on our open space at Mace-25……WTF!

    And now I see Lucas Frerichs has recently posted a picture of himself on Facebook wearing a Burrowing Owl mask promoting his environmental creds. Well, IMHO, he has not earned the right to promote himself in this way.

  3. Rick Entrikin

    Thanks to Catherine Portman for the outstanding review and expose’ of this city’s abysmal environmental record and purposeful elimination of Burrowing owls from the City.  Catherine is right, too, that any current council member, whether seated or running for office, who claims to have protected burrowing owls, is being deceptive, at best.

    And, ironically, Dan Ramos, the front-man for the now-named DISC project must have thought that Davis citizens had forgotten what happened to the Burrowing owls when his father, Frank, led development of the huge Mace Ranch project about 20 years ago.  Back then, watchful, concerned citizens repeatedly warned the City of Davis that heavy, land-moving equipment was operating ever-more-closely to the burrows of the owls — during breeding season.  So what happened?

    The City did nothing.  But the dirt-movers did.  They disced and leveled the soil above the occupied burrows – sealing them shut – and burying alive the parenting owls and their babies.  The surviving owls wandered in search of habitat but, as Catherine wrote so clearly above, every time the owls found a place to live, the City approved development or purposely neglected to maintain the owls’ habitat, thus actively or passively-aggressively forcing the owls out of the city.

    And, now, our current City Council is driving the final nail in the coffin of our once-thriving Burrowing owl population by refusing to protect the last remaining survivors, on 25 acres of  City-owned, Open Space tax-purchased land, for yet another Ramco development.

    Ron G., is correct: owls can’t vote.  But we can.  And I will definitely be voting “NO on Measure B.”

    1. Bill Marshall

      Good that you will vote… all eligible should… even if I vote differently…

      No vote… will not listen to whines as to outcomes… simple…

      Specifically as to measure B… I can easily live with either outcome…

      1. Rick Entrikin

        You realize that ground squirrels are rodents don’t you?  I do appreciate that some people don’t feel strongly about Measure B at this point.  I just hope they find a reason to vote NO when the time comes!


        1. Keith Olsen

          Plus from your account the owls were buried alive.  So who cares that the owls don’t create their own burrows, they were buried in the burrows they were habituating in.

  4. Rick Entrikin

    Yes, Keith, my point was that the Burrowing owls were buried alive (by equipment operators hired by Ramco, the same company trying to develop DISC today, again at the expense of Burrowing owls.)  I assume the question about owls not creating their own burrows was an ill-founded attempt by the writer to demonstrate superior knowledge of avian ecology.

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