Where burrowing owls, green energy meet

A burrowing owl stands near entrance to underground habitat entrance at ASU Polytechnic campus in August 2021

A burrowing owl stands near the entrance to an underground burrow at the ASU Polytechnic campus in August 2021. Photo by Deanna Dent/Arizona State University


How great is the overlap between burrowing owl habitats and areas of high solar project potential in Arizona? What mitigation measures and habitat restoration opportunities should be planned for when renewable energy developers are considering solar projects around this species?

These are some of the big questions students in Arizona State University's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at the Polytechnic campus have begun to address in a new research project funded by a grant to the ASU Foundation by Ørsted, a leading clean energy company — and the first energy company in the world with a science-based, net-zero emissions target as validated by the Science Based Targets initiative. The project leans on the expertise and interests of students and faculty in the college's applied biological sciences program, home to the college's Burrowing Owl Conservation Project

Burrowing owls — the only species of owls in the world that nest and live in underground burrows — are abundant in southern Arizona, including metropolitan Phoenix. However, increased development of open desert and grassland has led to a loss of habitat, and burrowing owls have been labeled a “species of concern.” Once the most populous kind of owl in the continental United States, burrowing owl populations have declined to less than 1% of what they were in the United States 150 years ago.

“It’s wonderful to see how the work that our faculty and students have been engaged in is leading to additional student research opportunities, like this new collaboration with Ørsted,” said Joanna Grabski, dean of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “Career-connected learning and industry partnerships are at the heart of many of our degree programs in the college. For the ASU Polytechnic campus student body and students in our applied biological sciences program, the burrowing owl project is also a source of connection and cohesion, to be sure. Learning about the owls and what we can do to help this species has enthralled the ASU community as well.” 

In May 2021, in collaboration with Wild at Heart raptor rescue, ASU Polytechnic campus installed a successful burrowing owl habitat for owl pairs in need of translocation due to development in other parts of the Phoenix area. Students helped assess the best sites to locate the habitat, helped construct it, and helped feed and maintain the owls as they settled into the new habitat. Over the past two years, several classes have been involved in restoring that habitat and studying the owls and their fledglings, through real-time observations and analysis of trail camera footage.

“Protection of biodiversity can coexist with the green energy that we need, just like burrowing owls coexist with prairie dog communities,” said Daniel Willard, regional biodiversity specialist at Ørsted. “We believe it’s important to prioritize the protection of wildlife and support for biodiversity while developing renewable energy projects. Partnerships like this one between Ørsted and ASU are important to help us further understand the best ways to minimize risks to native species and help restore the habitat they need to thrive.”

Student researchers were selected for the project in February and will now begin collecting data to identify high-priority habitats for burrowing owls and other sensitive species as well as locations of high solar energy potential. These include areas that have level ground, have limited vegetation, are available for development and are close to substations. This information will help energy companies further understand the location and extent of burrowing owl habitats when developing projects in Arizona.

“In the applied biological sciences at ASU, we’re research-driven and want to make sure we’re giving opportunities to students in data collection and research analysis,” said Assistant Teaching Professor Adam Stein, one of the faculty members overseeing student work on the project. "To quantify the potential overlap between quality burrowing owl habitat and land with good solar potential, Professor Fabio Albuquerque is leading the charge to design a heat map and will be using powerful GIS programming. Our students have been super proactive in wanting to learn to work with this powerful GIS tool and adapt it to real-life situations."

Career-connected learning

ASU senior Kylee Fleckenstein, one of the students who will be working on the grant-funded project, is excited to get going.

“I’ve started putting together a plan to create a few different species distribution models to overlay with hotspot analysis of where solar farms would be most ideal,” said Fleckenstein, an applied biological sciences major completing the concentration in natural resource ecology. She worked on a similar project last semester, with professors Stein and Albuquerque, focused on modeling how future climactic variables could impact species distribution of the five-striped sparrow over the next 60–80 years.

“This modeling is exactly the kind of work I’d love to do when I graduate," Fleckenstein said. "I love working with animals, but doing this kind of research I find really exciting and I’d love to lean into that if I can." She started in the college's applied biological sciences major as an online student in Washington before coming to ASU in person to complete the degree's natural resource ecology concentration at the Polytechnic campus. “It’s been great. I’ve been able to do so much more being here in person!”

To develop a clear benchmark for successful translocation, the researchers will compile a comprehensive list of techniques shown to be successful for burrowing owl translocations and identify how these vary geographically. Students will also identify renewable energy developers that have been successful in mitigating impacts on burrowing owls during construction and energy production phases and explore opportunities to protect and restore their habitat. 

“Students will be stepping outside of theory and science and beginning to see how connected many disciplines are to questions like these,“ Stein said. “They'll be gathering published and unpublished knowledge, and interviewing conservationists. They’ll be thinking about biological principles and how novel solutions can be generated — and hopefully the work spurs the imagination of these students moving forward. We’re optimistic we can resolve our energy crisis without engaging in more of the biodiversity crisis."

Ørsted is currently constructing the Eleven Mile Solar Center in Pinal County, Arizona. In addition to utilizing its in-house expertise, Ørsted has partnered with the environmental consultant firm Western EcoSystems Technology (WEST) to avoid and minimize impacts to burrowing owls at the project. WEST and Ørsted have worked together to develop and implement a project-specific burrowing owl management plan, guided by state and federal protocols, that provides solutions for preventing burrowing owl impacts. 

“To do our best work in the most thoughtful way, it’s important that we learn as much as we can about burrowing owls and other wildlife in the southwest," Willard said. "Working with ASU is a win-win because we get great information, and the next generation of scientists and green energy advocates are brought into our work from the beginning.”

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