Wind whispers through silvery green grasses as Alex Froese’s arm disappears into a dark hole in the ground on a Prairie pasture near Melita in southwestern Manitoba in July.
She gently pulls out a baby owl. Then another, and another, passing them to her assistant, who puts them into a bucket.
“This is the best day of the year,” says Froese, director of the non-profit Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Project.
“It feels amazing every year to handle them and band them and know that the reason these young are there is because of our program and because of the work I’ve put in.”
Froese has dedicated the past 13 years of her life to staving off a local extinction of burrowing owls.
Over the years, Froese has released about 215 into the wild, including five pairs and 14 young this year.
Her program is small. It releases up to 10 pairs per year and some of their young, though some babies are brought to overwinter at the zoo in Winnipeg to help seed the next generation of releases. Some have also come from conservation organizations like the Saskatchewan Burrowing Owl Interpretive Centre to boost genetic diversity. Only one adult has ever returned to its natal burrow.
The endangered species has sustained precipitous declines, like many other grassland bird species.
WATCH | Banding baby burrowing owls near Melita, Man.:
In 1982, Manitoba natural resources detected 76 breeding pairs. Those low numbers triggered a breeding and reintroduction program, with owls from Ontario, Saskatchewan and North Dakota moved and released in Manitoba.
The efforts didn’t stick.
Over the past decade, the Manitoba population has hovered from zero to a peak of around 80 individuals in the mid-2000s.
Three breeding pairs and several loners have been found in the southwest from 2020 until 2022. That’s up over previous years.
Froese admits that in the broader context, it’s a drop in the bucket. A federal recovery strategy aims for 3,000 breeding pairs in western provinces; there are presently fewer than 1,000.
Fragmentation — when a landscape is divided, commonly by roads — plays a role, but the issue can largely be blamed on habitat loss from agriculture, oil extraction and other development.
About half a dozen oil pump jack sites are within view of Froese’s nests, smack dab in the middle of cropland that used to be native Prairie.
“Usually you’re not going to find burrowing owls hanging out right in an area where you have continuous human presence and noisy machinery,” Froese says.
Wild owls have shown up in the area south of Melita, which is why an artificial nest site was established there last year.
There are fewer natural burrows because there are fewer foxes, badgers, ground squirrels and other digging mammals to leave them behind, Froese says. Holes that do exist aren’t ideal because they can be more easily dug up.
Recovery projects like hers opt for something more sturdy: they bury a system of hard plastic pail and corrugated tubing underground.
In addition to getting banded, the owls get a physical each summer.
A baby owl wrapped in a cloth like a burrito wriggles in the hands of Dr. Charlene Berkvens, associate veterinarian at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, as she takes blood samples to determine which babies are most fit and able to stay in the wild.
Others won’t migrate south to Mexico like they naturally would, at least not this year. Some owlettes will overwinter at the zoo to take part in the breeding and reintroduction program next year.
“That trek down to Mexico is getting more and more difficult,” Berkvens says.
Some released in past years have been fitted with radio transmitters. That let researchers track their movements.
“We’ve seen them die from getting hit by cars, we’ve seen them die from being predated, but extreme weather events are also playing a significant impact,” Berkvens says.
“We’ve had ones that storms blow in and kill large numbers…. Climate change is playing a role.”
The mounting pressures and uncertain fate of the species weigh on Froese.
“To lose even one can be quite devastating,” she says.
The biggest threat facing the recovery program is funding cuts, Froese says.
Froese’s work is made possible by corporate contributions and donations from the public.
The Burrowing Owl Recovery Project hasn’t received monetary support from the federal or provincial governments over the past four years.
“It’s really disheartening to put in so much work and effort and care so much, because this isn’t just a job for me, this is my life, it’s part of my identity, it’s my passion, so it’s really hard … that you don’t see that value.”
That speaks to bigger questions about how we decide which species warrant a robust, publicly funded recovery effort, which don’t, and why.
The rainforest, the Arctic and charismatic megafauna like polar bears are all supported by international campaigns that aren’t seen with the grasslands and its birds, Froese says.
WATCH | Alex Froese explains what keeps her committed to helping burrowing owls:
She thinks grassland ecosystems aren’t as highly valued for their ecological benefit and importance for biodiversity. With more awareness, Froese feels burrowing owls could be the icon of the disappearing native Prairie.
“They’re not going to make a comeback without help,” she says.
“My passion has sort of carried me through and pushed me to keep going, because if I am not doing this work, who is?”
The answer might one day be someone like Zoey Bostick.
The 11-year-old is an avid birder and her father, Tracy Bostick, won a draw to attend the baby owl banding day in July, along with her and her little brother, after making a donation to the project.
“I think the challenges their generation faces are quite daunting, but it’s going to take people like Alex, who runs this program, and then the next generation of people to carry that on,” Tracy says.
“It’s important that they be here to learn about this.”
Zoe, gingerly clutching an owl in her hands, says she never thought she would have a chance to see, let alone interact with, a bird so endangered.
“It makes me feel a part of it and definitely makes me feel like I am supporting this kind of work.”
The Weekend Morning Show (Manitoba)9:58Burrowing owls facing new challenges in southwestern Manitoba