TEP’s H. Wilson Sundt Generating Station provides more than power; it also provides housing for a different kind of customer – burrowing owls. Members of this winged species have built an underground community at the Tucson power plant, with help from TEP employee volunteers.
TEP has partnered with the wildlife rescue, rehabilitation and relocation group Wild At Heart to create new homes for burrowing owls that have lost their habitat due to home construction.
The partnership began in 2003, near the height of Tucson’s housing boom, as a way to restore migratory bird habitats that had become threatened. The burrowing owl species is endangered in Canada and threatened in Mexico and is a species of special concern in most of the West, including Arizona.
Burrowing owls, as their name suggests, seek refuge in underground habitats. This preference makes them especially vulnerable to land development. The owls do not dig their own burrows; rather, they live in burrows abandoned by other underground dwellers such as squirrels, foxes and badgers.
Because they have a number of predators, burrowing owls prefer living in areas with minimal vegetation and 360-degree views. This has made the land surrounding TEP largest local power plant the perfect home for our burrowing friends. The area has little infrastructure and affords the owls a clear view of approaching predators.
“This was the first site to demonstrate that an industrial site was suitable for this kind of work,” said Greg Clark, Wild At Heart’s Burrowing Owl Habitat Coordinator. Previous habitats were built in agricultural areas, he said.
More than 30 TEP volunteers worked over four days to create burrows at five different sites around the generating station. “Employees came out and were willing to learn,” Clark said. They dug groupings of four holes at each site and installed five-gallon buckets upside down in the ground as nesting chambers. Then they used corrugated hoses to create “L”-shaped tunnels connecting the nesting chambers to the surface.
Wild At Heart released 50 owls into tents over the holes, where the birds were given food, water and time to adapt to their new homes. Some of the birds left, but many remained.
TEP employees have enjoyed monitoring the birds’ progress over the years. Cameras installed in the burrows have allowed the Arizona Game and Fish Department to study the owls and document their offspring. One year, as many as five babies were spotted in a single bucket. The owl population fluctuates from year to year, usually between 10 and 15 owls.
In recent years, TEP’s bird business has been branching out. TEP employees have volunteered time and equipment to dig burrows for owls at other sites, including near the company’s Springerville Generating Station in eastern Arizona.
“Power plants can be conducive to all sorts of wildlife,” said Mary Fosdick, TEP Senior Chemical & Environmental Engineer. “In addition to burrowing owls, great-horned owls, red-tailed hawks and ducklings live and thrive on our property.”