Julie Luetzelschwab and her lens captured a picturesque scene on the desert plateau outside of Santa Fe, N.M., June 27 – a pair of burrowing owls peaked out of the high dry grass and cacti.
Three days later, the birdwatcher came across another scene she wished she hadn’t. She found one of the owls dead, and missing a limb. An X-ray showed shrapnel in the bird’s left wing and shoulder blade.
In response to the reported killing of the owl, the US Bureau of Land Management has deployed more officers to patrol the Caja del Rio plateau.
Officials acknowledge it will be near impossible to find the killer. Nevertheless, the killing of the protected bird highlights its declining population due to human’s prairie dog and ground squirrel control programs.
"Our job on public land is to protect them to the best of our ability," said Donna Hummel, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management. "And we do that with a lot of help from the community."
"There are lots of eyes and ears and people that care about wildlife here in New Mexico," she said. "And (the shooter's) illegal actions are not going to go unnoticed."
The long-legged burrowing owl, which cowboys referred to as the “howdy” bird, lives in open grasslands, prairies, farmland, and airfields. It favors flat, open ground with short grass or bare soil, and lives in the Southwest, California, and Florida, according to the National Audubon Society. It can migrate further north throughout the west to breed.
The owl owes its namesake to its habit of burrowing at the entrance of prairie dog and other animal holes, and will nest there too. As Ms. Luetzelschwab saw, the owls often fly in pairs in a display of courtship.
Though there are an estimated 10,000 pairs of owls in the United States, the bird’s population has declined, largely at the hands of humans. Control programs for prairie dogs and ground squirrels have consequently destroyed the homes of burrowing owls. The owls often resort to burrowing in airfields, golf courses, vacant lots, industrial parks, and other open areas.
In just New Mexico, more than 21,000 prairie dogs were “removed or destroyed” last year, according to the US Department of Agriculture, as the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.
“The war with prairie dogs has really taken a toll with burrowing owls,” Jim Walters, a biologist whose hobby is monitoring the birds, told the Santa Fe New Mexican.
The owl’s loss of habitat, which leaves it and its chicks susceptible to attacks by predators, has led to a drastic decline of its population in the Santa Fe area. In 2008, there were 68 pairs of owls, according to a neighborhood birdwatching group that monitors the population. This year, there were just six pairs.
Killings of burrowing owls, however, are rare. In 2015, just one burrowing owl was intentionally killed in the US, according to the Department of Agriculture.
It will be nearly impossible to catch the killer of this owl, according to Ted Hodoba, manager of the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area in New Mexico. If the perpetrator is caught, they face up to six months in prison and a $500 fine, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s illegal to hunt, capture, kill or transport burrowing owls or other migratory birds on federal land under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
“It is just cruelty. There is no real reason or excuse to do that,” said Mr. Hodoba. “All species, in my opinion, have the right to exist, so we have to figure out how to do that as humans.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press.