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Giving a hoot about an owl

Endangered bird found in path of major highway project in western Allegheny County

Thursday, March 12, 1998

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Pacific Northwest has its federally endangered spotted owl. Now Findlay has the short-eared owl.

While the spotted owl has been perched between chain saws and trees in pristine forests for a long time, the short-eared owl, listed as endangered by Pennsylvania, has just been discovered in the path of the Findlay Connector, a major highway project in western Allegheny County.

"There are owls in the area. We flushed several," said Kevin Mixon, a wildlife biologist with the state Game Commission who participated in a field survey last week. "We haven't determined the impact yet, but we're going to recommend some options to the (Pennsylvania) Turnpike Commission."

The Game Commission proposal that would result in the most drastic revision to the project would eliminate the Bald Knob interchange.

Another option would allow the project to proceed as designed but require the turnpike commission and the Imperial Land Corp., which owns the property, to agree to a conservation easement. The easement would preserve undisturbed grassland habitat in the area that supports the owls.

The owls' roosting and nesting area is in a wide, reclaimed former strip mine site near the proposed Bald Knob interchange, and birders have raised concerns that the roadway and subsequent commercial development would ruin their habitat and run off the birds.

"The owls have been sighted recently on former strip mine lands near Grove City, in Mercer County, and in Indiana County, but the value of the Imperial grasslands is that they're so close to Pittsburgh," said Jack Solomon, an avid birder who has visited the Findlay site a dozen times.

The connector is part of the 28-mile, $560 million Southern Beltway following the Washington-Allegheny county border between Pittsburgh International Airport and the Mon-Fayette Expressway, another toll road project.

The Findlay Connector, with a price tag of $150 million, would provide a shortcut connecting Routes 22, 30 and 60 to the airport's terminal. The beltway would cross over Bald Knob Road and Route 30, where interchanges would be built.

Tom Fox, community involvement coordinator for the turnpike commission, said he doubts the discovery of the owl will delay the connector project.

During the Findlay project's public comment period, which ended Monday, several individuals as well as the local and national Audubon Societies, raised concerns about the road's impact on the owl habitat. Those comments spurred last week's field survey.

After the commission addresses all of the public comments, a process that could take up to six weeks because of the owl issue, the project will be submitted for federal approval.

"We're still hoping for a decision from the Federal Highway Administration in June, then it's up to the powers that be to do a final design and acquire the right of way," Fox said.

It could take up to 18 months to do the design work and acquire the land for the road, Fox said, and another two construction seasons to build it.

The Findlay section was scheduled for construction first, because, as John F. Graham, turnpike deputy executive director, observed in 1994, "it follows a path of least resistance" through thousands of acres of mostly vacant, strip-mined land.

Just the kind of open, short-grass habitat the night-hunting, vole-eating, short-eared owl likes. It's also a habitat that's in short supply in Pennsylvania, which is one reason the owl, which can be found on all continents save Australia and ranges from northwest Alaska to Florida, is scarce in the state.

While the short-eared owl is a state endangered species, it is listed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as a "species of management concern in the northeast region of the United States," which means it is a species of declining population or has habitat problems, or both.

Chuck Tague, editor of the Nature Observer News and the man who discovered the owls, said the grassy former strip mine site was the best birding area in Allegheny County and among the best in the state. His birding check list shows sightings of 202 species over the past six years, including the only nestings of the blue grosbeak in Western Pennsylvania.

"The road will seriously disrupt that. But if the interchange were eliminated that would be great," Tague said. "The conservation easement is a great idea, too. There will still be the problem with fragmented habitat, but at least some of the grassland and ponds would be preserved."

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