JACKSON — Cavity-nesting owls are Shawshanking their way into the wrong cavity — the business end of a vault toilet — but a simple upgrade to these perilous potties might save them a disgusting demise.
A group of do-gooders says the Port-O-Potty Owl Project, or PoOPoO Project, for short, could benefit not only small owls such as western screech, northern pigmy, boreal and northern saw-whet owls, but also some small mammals that might find their way down the vent pipes of public toilets on public lands.
"There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests that cavity-nesting owls seek out these vent pipes," said Amy McCarthy, executive director of the Teton Raptor Center. "They would seek out these places for nests and sometimes for caching food.
"Once they get in there, they often can't escape," she said. "It's wet, it's mucky and they get stuck."
The evidence is anecdotal because not many researchers have focused on the problem.
"We don't have the studies because, who really wants to go out and study that?" McCarthy said. "It's a worthwhile project, and we may save more than a few owls because of it.
"I've talked to people in California who have confronted this," McCarthy said. "It is an issue that is on the radar of Forest Service resource managers. It's a practical, on-the-ground conservation project."
With a $6,396 grant and volunteers from AmeriCorps, the Teton Raptor Center hopes to install screens over the vent pipes of 85 vault toilets around the Jackson Hole area this summer, specifically in the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee national forests and Grand Teton National Park.
"(The screens) actually fit on with three self-tapping screws, so it's a pretty minimal hardware project," McCarthy said. "It'll take us a few days."
David Cernicek, river manager for the Bridger-Teton National Forest, first called attention to the issue by sending a picture of a poo-entrapped owl to the raptor center.
"It was just one of those things that came through my email, and I forwarded it," he said. "I had no idea that it would blow up into a huge project. It's actually been kind of cool."
"Anything dying in tank full of poop is awful to think about," Cernicek said.
Now, Cernicek is acting as a sort of liaison between the PoO-PoO proponents and the Forest Service.
"I'll do anything I can on the Forest Service side in case there are objections, but there have been none so far," he said.
Land managers on the Buffalo and Jackson ranger districts are fine with retrofits.