Snow Studies Series: FLC's SEEDS has a hoot in the wilderness
In late winter 2023, against record-setting snowfall, two Fort Lewis College juniors joined Southwest Colorado Community Naturalist Keith Bruno and Weminuche Audubon Society Volunteer Kurt Huffman for a 10-mile trek into the HD Mountains near Bayfield, Colorado. Matt Young and Ian Crews were on a mission to record the unique calls of the Mexican spotted owl. Young and Crews are members of FLC’s Strategies for Ecological Education, Diversity & Sustainability Club, and the excursion provided valuable insight into their future careers as land management professionals.
“For the first trek, we got on the snow at 9 a.m. and didn’t get off until 7 p.m. It was an all-day affair,” said Young, a junior studying Biology and president of FLC’s SEEDS Club. “But it’s a place where Mexican spotted owls could be active. So, we deployed some autonomous recording units to monitor and see if this species occupies any habitat in the HD mountains.”
The team uses SwiftOne: Terrestrial Autonomous Recording Units, proprietary pieces of acoustic detection technology developed by Cornell University with limitless applications in wildlife ecology. Mastering this equipment’s use is beneficial for students as well as the elusive owl species.
The U.S. government listed Strix occidentalis lucida as a threatened species in 1993. This year, Beverly Compton, a San Juan Citizens Alliance volunteer, launched the effort to identify the spotted owl in the HD Mountains. Compton sought a way to protect wildlife and ecology in the HD Mountains region from expanding oil and gas operations.
“It’s really clear we’re killing our planet,” Compton said. “At 70 years old, I have had a great life in the backcountry of Colorado; it’s the happiest place for me. So, if we think being outside is essential to our happiness, then we have to get serious about protecting it.”
An identification of the species would prioritize the area for conservation efforts, given the protections afforded the spotted owl by the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
In collaboration with Audubon Rockies and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, FLC's SEEDS Club made three trips into the HD Mountains during the height of the Mexican spotted owl's mating season. The team used the age-old method of snowshoeing to cross the frozen wilderness. In contrast, their ARU units allowed fellow SEEDS Club members Lucas Brown (Environmental Science, ‘22) and Ashley Jorgenson (Biology, ‘22) to identify species through sound analysis with Raven Pro software from the comfort of their living rooms.
“It’s been a several-month process of learning and fine-tuning the software to detect Mexican spotted owl calls with Ashley and Kurt,” Brown said. “We received the first month of sound data from March but didn’t detect anything. We had some false positives in the April data set for barred owls, but that’s all we’ve picked up. There’s still hope for the May and June data sets.”
"It’s really clear we’re killing our planet. At 70 years old, I have had a great life in the backcountry of Colorado; it’s the happiest place for me. So, if we think being outside is essential to our happiness, then we have to get serious about protecting it."
— Beverly Compton
Regardless of the team's retrieval of spotted owl evidence in the area, the SEEDS Club members are making inroads with potential employers and building skills through hands-on practice with real-world technology.
“We enjoyed working with FLC students,” Bruno said. “It’s nice to have boots on the ground, ears for the detection analysis, and it helped us realize future opportunities for collaboration. More than that, being out in the snow and improving our birding skills was a blast.”
Young concurred, stating that these are skills he will use in his future career as a conservationist.
“One of my goals is to go into public land management,” Young said. “This project has been a great way to network and get to know Keith, who spent days teaching me how to use this equipment. There are many Mexican spotted owl surveys that the U.S. Forest Service performs whenever there are proposed logging and mining operations or even prescribed burns. So, it's really helpful to learn these skills.”