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 burrowingowls.org 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 – https://www.facebook.com/burrowingowlpreservationsociety
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