Our work at Teton Raptor Center is to help birds of prey through education, conservation and rehabilitation. Raptors in our ecosystem face a number of human hazards in their quest for survival — vehicles, windows, power lines — and believe it or not porto-o-potties; in particular, the vault toilets all of us have probably used and will use when making a pit stop in our national parks and forests.
There is growing documentation by regional resource managers that small owls are being trapped in these vault toilets after the owls enter through open-topped vent pipes leading to the waste holding reservoirs below. Once they enter the waste pit they are trapped and unable to fly back up the pipe or out through the toilet.
So, why would an owl want to go into a large, dark pipe? It’s the natural behavior of many small, native owls to seek out such places for nesting and caching food. Thus, the open-tops of the air vents are a dangerous, and potentially deadly, lure.
Fortunately for the owls, and unlike with many other man-made wildlife hazards, there is a relatively inexpensive and simple fix to this problem. Attaching a screened vent cover to the open-top pipe would prevent small owls from entering the vent, and additionally preclude small mammals from doing the same.
This is a local and regional wildlife issue that potentially affects several species of owls, two of which are Species of Special Concern in Wyoming and one is a Sensitive Species in Idaho. In the Tetons, at least four species of small, cavity nesting owls are regularly found and may be attracted to these open vents, including the Western Screech Owl, Boreal Owl, Northern Pygmy Owl, and Northern Saw Whet Owl.
The exact number of owls which have been trapped in vault toilets located on our nearby public lands is difficult to assess, in part, because third party contractors empty the toilets.
Through the Port-O-Potty Owl Project we will partner with resource managers and facilities managers throughout Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton and Targhee national forests to retrofit 85 vault toilet units with vent screens in an effort to eliminate small owls’ exposure to accidental entrapment and to a most unpleasant demise.
We recognize that this is a newly identified issue on our public lands and there is little baseline data to adequately quantify change. Thus, this is truly a leadership initiative and will be a pilot project throughout which we will document the process, procedures, successes and challenges in implementing what we hope will become a region-wide effort to prevent entrapment.
Additionally, the PoO-PoO Project will serve as a community educational tool to share the natural history, biology and ecological significance of birds of prey in our ecosystem, encompassing direct programming with the local Boy Scouts troops, who will provide volunteer labor power during the installation of the screen fixtures.
Successful implementation and evaluation of the PoO-PoO Project will allow this initiative to be a model for other communities, parks, forests and resource managers, once again placing the Tetons on the map as a home of conservation leadership.
One owl meeting its ultimate fate at the base of a human waste receptacle is one owl too many. We can eliminate this hazard to the small owl species of the Tetons with the leadership of Teton Raptor Center and our public lands partners AND with significant and meaningful financial support from 1% for the Tetons.
Please give a HOOT and support the PoO-PoO project.