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Intermountain Bird Observatory Earns Competitive Grant to Study Imperiled Owls

An owl flying in the sky!
Short-eared owl. Photo by Zak Pohlen.

The researchers at Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory (IBO) are known as global leaders in migratory bird research and for their ability to ignite a passion for bird research and preservation among a curious public.

IBO researchers soon will be combining these strengths: the organization will receive a significant portion of a three-year, $500,000 competitive state wildlife grant, awarded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). The team will survey imperiled short-eared owls (Asio flammeus) across eight western states, utilizing a team of citizen scientist volunteers.

The grant will allow IBO and its partnering organizations – WAFWA, eight state fish and wildlife agencies, and six non-profit science and conservation organizations – to continue important survey work focused on short-eared owls in Idaho, California, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The Western Asio flammeus Landscape Study (WAfLS) began in 2015, when IBO’s Rob Miller recruited 131 volunteers across Idaho to contribute more than 1,000 hours of volunteer effort surveying for the elusive migratory short-eared owl. The early success of this project got the attention of the Pacific Flyway Council’s Nongame Technical Committee (NTC), which is a formal organization of state fish and wildlife agency representatives whose purpose is to manage and conserve migratory nongame birds in western North America.

“This grant is the culmination of lots of hard work by our partner organizations and our pool of committed volunteers across the region. It will amplify our efforts, allow a more comprehensive view of this species, and enable us to implement the most effective conservation measures to hopefully reverse the decline of this iconic open-country species,” said Miller, a research biologist with IBO and the research lead for this project.

“The NTC had already recognized the need for a regional survey effort for short-eared owls,” said Colleen Moulton, an avian ecologist with Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and Idaho’s representative on the NTC. “With the critical components in place, thanks to Rob’s initiative, we collectively decided to pursue funding from the Competitive State Wildlife Grant program to make this large-scale effort a reality. Rob’s dedication, and ability to work well with a diverse group of partners, were essential in ultimately securing this grant.”

“I’m really excited about the progress that we’ve made on studying short-eared owls over just a few years,” said Jay Carlisle, research director of IBO and an associate research faculty in Boise State’s Department of Biological Sciences. “I and others continue to be impressed with Rob’s leadership on this project as he’s been the main driving force in taking this from a colleague’s plea for more attention on short-eared owls and then a discussion at a 2014 Idaho Bird Conservation Partnership meeting to a full-fledged, regional study with scientific rigor.”

The short-eared owl is an open-country bird who thrives in native grasslands and shrublands, and hunts small mammals. However, its numbers are in decline; the bird is considered critically imperiled, imperiled or vulnerable in 74 percent of the U.S. and Canada, where it makes its home. Furthermore, the population’s natural habitat is predicted to suffer losses of at least 50 percent by 2050, with 90 percent of that habitat loss predicted to take place in the western U.S.

These predictions indicate why it is so critical for researchers at IBO and elsewhere to collaborate towards a better understanding of the species and its migratory habits now.

“Despite the conservation concern, the species is not adequately sampled and projections lack the statistical confidence needed to catalyze conservation action,” said Miller.

People posing on a mountaintop
Citizen scientists Sheri and Don Weber.

“The more we became familiar with this project and Rob, the more it was apparent that he was a very detail-oriented scientist,” said Sheri Weber, who volunteered with her husband, Don. “We knew we would be involved with a project that would have far-reaching effects on a bird species that we had never seen, and were living with in real time, in our own state of Idaho – most importantly, it would be scientifically outstanding.”

In 2016, through a partnership with HawkWatch International (HWI), IBO expanded the short-eared owl survey program to cover all of Idaho and Utah. IBO and HWI recruited 204 participants contributing over 2,600 volunteer hours to implement the program. The results were directly integrated into mandatory State Wildlife Action plans of both states – plans that state agencies use as blueprints for conservation for a decade.

In 2017, under IBO leadership, the WAfLS program again expanded to include Nevada and Wyoming through additional partnerships. This year, the organization recruited 330 participants contributing over 3,400 hours.

This new grant will enable IBO and partners to implement two science and conservation programs focused on the conservation of short-eared owls and related grassland and shrubland species, followed by targeted outreach efforts to prioritize statewide conservation efforts. The first program will build upon and expand IBO and partners’ recent efforts in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming to initiate a quantitative field survey of short-eared owls in eight states, taking into consideration projected landscape and climate changes. The second program, through a partnership with the University of Idaho, will expand an ongoing experimental research project examining responses of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) to various grazing treatments to address similar questions for short-eared owls.

“The grant that we received is part of a very competitive national program and the project couldn’t have happened without many partners collaborating towards a common goal,” said Carlisle. “I view this as a very significant project for IBO because of the strong partnership element and conservation implications while I think it reflects goals that IBO shares with Boise State’s Department of Biological Sciences and other researchers on campus to conduct original research that has immediate relevance to current issues.”

“I think the most interesting thing is how we have been able to accomplish such a large effort, that is statistically rigorous, by engaging enthusiastic citizen-scientist volunteers,” said Miller.

“Almost as valuable as the quantified result, our volunteers learn about the species, about conservation, about ecosystem complexities, about the scientific method, and get to experience a part of their local area that that they may not frequent at a time of day that they are not usually out. Even without seeing owls, nearly every volunteer states that it was a fantastic experience, that they saw something cool and that they gained from the experience.”