After securing the proper permits, a new Florida casino is ready to begin construction on an enormous redevelopment project in Pompano Beach. There’s just one little snag. Tiny owls are halting progress on the massive Isle Casino Pompano Park redevelopment.
The project includes the expansion and renaming of the Isle Casino to Harrah’s Pompano Beach. The complex will also have an e-commerce distribution center, a 950-room hotel, 4,000 residential units, an entertainment and retail district and a lake.
Residents living near the complex have voiced concerns over the tremendous scope of the project, but it’s the burrowing owl standing less than 10 inches tall that’s grabbing the headlines. The owls live and nest at the property’s decommissioned horse track. Caesars and The Cordish Companies plan to develop the old track, putting the burrowing owls at risk.
Former employees voice concerns
Former track employee Nancy Schaut formed a group with other concerned former employees to protect the owls. She talked to the Local 10 news station about the group’s worries.
“This is 200 acres of land that is being taken away from the owls and all of the other animals because we have many. What I’m worried about is they are going to be left homeless or hurt or killed. So I am very much concerned.”
The group spoke with casino officials in late June. The officials assured the group that they are doing everything they can to protect the owls.
State and federal laws require protection of owls
Burrowing owls are a state-designated threatened species. They are also federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Both require developers to follow a series of protocols when building on land occupied by burrowing owls.
According to Kelly Heffernan, founder and director of Project Perch, a nonprofit devoted to protecting Florida’s burrowing owls, companies typically follow state and federal regulations.
At the federal level, developers must take certain steps to protect the owls under the MBTA.
The act states that you cannot remove any burrowing owl nests when the owls are nesting or have flightless young. The burrowing owl nesting season typically runs from February to mid-July. It takes about six weeks for a newborn owl to fly.
So, in theory, Caesers and Cordish may not be able to develop on the owls’ burrows until the end of August.
At the state level, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a specific process in place for dealing with threatened species. Basically, Heffernan said, developers have to get a permit to deal with the nests. After that, they have two options.
- Pay a lower fee to help mitigate the owls’ habitat
- Pay a higher fee to skip mitigation.
The higher fee becomes a donation to the state’s imperiled species fund, Heffernan said.
“You’re required to get a state permit, and that permitting system financially encourages permittee to provide habitat for and sustain the owls on that site in some form. If you can’t, the donations you make go into the state’s imperiled species fund. That gives the state resources to preserve habitat.”
Even if Caesars and Cordish choose to pay the higher fee to skip mitigation, they still have to follow a specific process to protect the owls. They must identify all the nests in the area. Then, they need to use a camera scope to verify that the nests do not contain any eggs or flightless young.
“They cannot destroy a nest of an owl that’s actively breeding or has flightless young,” Heffernan said.