Cape Coral to consider additional protections for burrowing owls
Volunteers from the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife show us how to build a nest for burrowing owls in Cape Coral.
Burrowing owls may get additional protections in Cape Coral after city council considers an ordinance that would allow local officers to enforce safeguards for the species.
The ordinance, brought forward by District 2 Council Member John Carioscia, is a duplication of a state statute already in place for the owls, which are considered threatened in Florida. Carioscia said it's important to have a local version of the rule to speed up response times to violations of the state law.
"Hopefully Monday night, council will agree to it and we'll move forward with implementing a new ordinance to protect our furry friends," Carioscia said.
According to the proposal, those seeking development applications from the city to survey the property for burrowing owl burrows and to contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission if nests are present.
Developers need to maintain a buffer around the entrance of "potentially occupied burrows during all phases of construction" — at least 10 feet during the non-breeding season (July 11 - Feb. 14) and at least 33 feet during the breeding season (Feb. 15 - July 10). Contractors, property owners, city representatives, scientific researchers and environmental consultants are allowed to enter burrow protection zones for a limited number of activities, including burrow and landscape maintenance and research.
The ordinance also outlines penalties for those who remove burrowing owl nests without proper state permits or violate any of the other parts of the ordinance: a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in county jail. Each day a violation continues "shall be considered a separate and distinct offense," the ordinance reads.
Burrow destruction has cropped up in the city in recent months, as two men were arrested in August and October for destroying six nests during construction activities in the Cape.
On top of that, those who violate the new rules may have to restore the burrows' protection zone. The city can place a lien on the subject property for the cost of restoration, if the developer doesn't restore the protection zone "within a reasonable time after notice to the violator of the restoration requirement."
On the state side, the FWC prohibits taking, possessing, or selling burrowing owls, their burrows, or eggs without a permit. Penalties for violating the statute as it relates to the owls are the same as those outlined in Cape Coral's ordinance. Burrowing owls, eggs, and young are also protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Carioscia said he's not clear about whether the city and state penalties would be concurrent, but said it may be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. He said the main issue is getting a rule on the books at the local level.
Pascha Donaldson, vice president of Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, said this ordinance is 10 years in the making. She said it's a pity City Council didn't pass an ordinance like this when they made the burrowing owl the "Official City Bird" in 2005, but she's excited to be moving forward with the proposal.
"This ordinance reflects the state guidelines ... it's not tougher, it's not easier," Donaldson said.
She said she's thankful city council has the "vision and insight" to add some teeth to existing protections, adding that the owls' burrows are home to scores of other animals in addition to the owls.
The FWC changed the burrowing owls designation from a "species of special concern" to "threatened species" in 2017 due to its dwindling population. Donaldson said if the population continues to shrink and becomes endangered, it would hamper construction in Cape Coral.
Bill Johnson, Jr., executive director and CEO of the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association, said the group also worked with the Friends of Wildlife on the enforcement aspect of the ordinance.
He said when issues arise with infractions of state guidelines regarding the nests, people would have to contact the FWC for enforcement, which could take too long. This ordinance would speed up that process by allowing city police and code compliance officers to enforce it.
"The construction industry has always been at the forefront of making sure the species is protected," Johnson said. "We want to make sure the species thrives and is at an acceptable (population) level."
Interested in burrowing owls?
Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife will put starter burrows in residents' front yards for free to help with the owls' habitat loss, which the FWC says is the main threat to the species' population size.
The city and the Friends of Wildlife will also hold the inaugural "Ground-Owl Day" ceremony on Feb. 2, when Mayor Joe Coviello will read a proclamation marking the day. Attendees will see whether the event's new mascot will notice his shadow, "so we can enjoy six more weeks of 'winter weather' in Cape Coral," according to a city news release. The ceremony will be held at the Rotary Community Garden located on the north side of City Hall at 9 a.m.
There is also an owl-naming contest for the new mascot leading up to the event as well, with prizes for the first-, second- and third-place winners, including Friends of Wildlife family memberships and tickets to the Burrowing Owl Festival. To enter, participants can send an email with their name, telephone number and owl name ideas to NameThatOwl@gmail.com.