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Burrowing owls defenders say heavy equipment for Hurricane Ian debris is crushing underground nests

 Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife are concerned that crews apparently cleaning debris from Hurricane Ian out of city canals are also destroying burrowing owl and gopher tortoise burrows
Andrea Melendez
Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife are concerned that crews apparently cleaning debris from Hurricane Ian out of city canals are also destroying burrowing owl and gopher tortoise burrows

The state considers the burrowing owl a threatened species and Cape Coral is home to about 3,000 — the most of anywhere else in the state.

The passionate defenders of Cape Coral’s burrowing owls are livid now that tractors are clearing debris from Hurricane Ian out of the city’s canals and possibly crushing dozens of owl and gopher tortoise burrows.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission confirmed it has opened an investigation into the matter.

Cheryl Anderson, a member of the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, says cleanup crews from out-of-state are running the tractors over their private land, which are filled with burrowing owl and gopher tortoises burrows, and pulling hurricane debris out of the canals while destroying the healthy vegetation along each side.

“It’s a disaster to the wildlife. It has to be stopped right now,” Anderson said. “It’s a frightening thing, and the destruction is happening every single day. “

Anderson said that tractors have been scooping hurricane debris out of canals around the city for about a week, and on Thursday the machines went on to land owned by the non-profit friends of wildlife group in the 700 block of NW 3rd Place, along Tropicana Parkway East near Chiquita Boulevard, without permission or warning.

“They went on our lots, conservancy property,” she said. “And I am extremely concerned about that.”

Anderson said she did not know who owned the tractors nor what company they were from.

“Once the vegetation is cut and the trees are cut they are gone forever and the animals will starve,” she said. “It is live vegetation, not hurricane damage. All kinds of animals live in that remaining vegetation because that is all they have left.”

Wildlife officials said exactly what is going on was unclear.

Becky Matsubara

Adam Brown, the senior public information officer with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fort Myers office, said his agency was unaware of the concern over the burrowing owls Thursday afternoon and has since opened an investigation, but did not have any immediate findings to report Thursday evening.

An FWC official said there have been no owl or tortoise carcasses found or recovered.

“The FWC takes potential resource violations very seriously and encourages the public to report them by calling the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922,” Brown said. “Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward.”

The State of Florida considers the burrowing owl is a threatened species and Cape Coral is home to about 3,000 of the animals, the most of anywhere else in the state.

In Florida, the penalty for harming a species considered threatened varies depending on the specific circumstances of the case and the species in question.

However, under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, it is illegal to harm, harass, or kill a threatened or endangered species. Penalties for violating the act can include fines and prison time.

The burrowing owl is Cape Coral’s official city bird, and the guest of honor at the 21th Burrowing Owl Festival and Wildlife Exposition, which is going to be held February 25 at the Rotary Park Environmental Center.

Burrowing owls and gopher tortoises have been either discovered on, or been brought to, one of 48 residential lots where nothing will ever be built. These plots of land were purchased by members of a wildlife group establishing a patchwork sanctuary for the animals throughout town.

Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife has spent nearly $500,000 on about five dozen plots throughout the and are negotiating to buy five more. The 300-member group has been amassing the sanctuary, scattered throughout the city, since 2002.

The group focuses on burrowing owls and gopher tortoises because they both dig into the ground for protection and because most of the lots are easy-to-dig-in sandy spoil dredged up from the bay bottom when the city was created in the 1950s.

Burrowing owls are one of Florida's smallest owls, the it lives in open, treeless areas. The FWC said the owl spends most of its time on the ground where its sandy brown plumage provides camouflage from potential predators or in a burrow for both roosting and nesting.

The agency even wrote in a fact sheet about the owls that, after being chased out of its native habitat in the prairies of central Florida, burrowing owls now “inhabit cleared areas that offer short groundcover such as pastures, agricultural fields, golf courses, airports and vacant lots in residential areas.”

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Andrea Melendez
Tom Bayles