Driving across the Caja del Rio plateau the morning of June 27, Julie Luetzelschwab photographed two burrowing owls on federal land, peering out from tall grass dotted with cacti, their yellow eyes wide and unblinking. Less than a foot tall, their bodies were half obscured by the brush.
Three days later, one of the owls was spotted again, but its mate was missing. That owl’s body was discovered nearby, its feathers clumped together and wings splayed wide, as if it were struck down midflight. One leg was missing.
X-rays confirmed the bird had been hit by shrapnel embedded in its left wing and shoulder blade.
Burrowing owls are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the hunting, capture, killing or transporting of migratory birds on federal land. Killing an owl is punishable by up to six months in prison and a $500 fine, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Luetzelschwab said she set up her wildlife camera near the area where she had first sighted the birds, and when she retrieved the film, she discovered three small chicks being fed on the hour by a lone parent. She was worried that whoever shot the owl would come back for the chicks. And when she went back to check on them, she said, she heard gunshots.
Killings of the burrowing owl are rare. In 2015, just one burrowing owl was intentionally killed in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, although nearly 50 were relocated for various reasons in four states.
Donna Hummel, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management in Santa Fe, said this incident was the first of its kind to be reported in recent years.
“The BLM takes incidents like this very seriously,” Hummel said. Shooting the bird was a clear violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, she said, and more enforcement officers have been put on patrol in the Caja del Rio area following that incident.
“There are lots of eyes and ears and people that care about wildlife here in New Mexico,” Hummel said. “And [the shooter’s] illegal actions are not going to go unnoticed.”
Luetzelschwab is one of a handful of Santa Fe residents and bird enthusiasts who form that watchful presence and have been concerned about the dwindling presence of the native birds in New Mexico. Threatened by predators, hunters and diminishing habitat, the birds have declined from 68 pairs in 2008 to just six this year, according to Jim Walters, a biologist who has been conducting independent, hobby monitoring of the creatures in the Santa Fe region since that time.
“I’ve been monitoring burrowing owls for a number of years here in Santa Fe, and sadly, I have seen the population decline,” he said. “Something is desperately wrong in the population.”
Nationwide estimates suggest there are just 10,000 pairs remaining in the U.S., according to Defenders of Wildlife. The group has made unsuccessful efforts to protect the owl in California, where there also have been steep population drops.
Walters spotted his first burrowing owl in Santa Fe in 2008 as it was emerging from a prairie dog hole off Airport road, trailed by eight small chicks. Soon after, he documented large populations at the Santa Fe Municipal Airport, the Santa Fe Community College and even behind a Pizza Hut.
But the airport thought the prairie dogs and predators they attracted were a nuisance, even a potential safety threat, and relocated them. Their holes were covered, and with the prairie dogs, the burrowing owls went, too.
The small owls build their homes out of abandoned prairie dog tunnels, laying their eggs in the shallow holes just below ground. Between 2001 and 2013, the city spent more than half a million dollars on prairie dog relocation, to deal with nuisance issues and to limit the spread of plague and other diseases. But when their tunnels are covered, it further limits the burrowing owls’ habitat. Efforts to reduce prairie dogs with pesticides also have led to burrowing owl die-off, as has land development.
In New Mexico alone, more than 21,000 prairie dogs were “removed or destroyed” last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The war with prairie dogs has really taken a toll with burrowing owls,” said Walters, adding that the birds rely on the rodents for places to build their nests, lay their eggs and allow young chicks to grow.
But because the owls prefer to be close to the ground and are awake during the day, they are also more susceptible to being hunted by larger birds, foxes, household pets and even humans.
Dawn Wright, the office manager at the New Mexico Wildlife Center, said it is common to see birds of prey, including hawks, falcons and owls, brought into the center with a bullet wound. She confirmed that the burrowing owl’s death was related to a gunshot.
Ted Hodoba, manager at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area near Belen, says that even though hunting the owls is illegal, it is nearly impossible to catch the perpetrators.
“It is just cruelty. There is no real reason or excuse to do that,” he said. “All species, in my opinion, have the right to exist, so we have to figure out how to do that as humans.”
His group has built bird perches for the burrowing owls alongside a prairie dog sanctuary at the conservation area, but they have yet to attract any.
Hummel said the BLM continues to monitor the area where the burrowing owl was killed and hopes to work with other conservation groups to create signage, especially for those who might not know that it is illegal to kill the birds.
“Our job on public land is to protect them to the best of our ability,” she said. “And we do that with a lot of help from the community.”
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: July 6, 2016
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported Dawn Wright is the office manager at the Santa Fe Wildlife Center. The center is called the New Mexico Wildlife Center.