Fire district removes owls from their highway home but at whose direction?

Local animal lovers are asking hooooo gave the OK to remove three owls from their home in a highway sign in Apache Junction.
On April 22, firefighters from the Superstition Fire and Medical District rescued the three young owls from their nest overlooking U.S. Highway 60. The nest is perched on the west-facing highway sign for the exit at Idaho Road, also known as State Route 88, on the south side of the highway.
For years, although no one can document how many, residents who were aware of the nest observed avian activity in the nest, first from hawks and for the past year or so, the family of owls, according to Facebook postings on the fire district Facebook page.
“They removed the whole nest, a nest which had been there for at least four years (hawk for three and owl this past year),” Felicia Smith posted April 22 on the Facebook page.
“That was the highlight of every day, seeing the nest and then seeing the babies. I was sad to see it gone on my way home tonight. I’m glad they are safe. I was worried what happened to them,” Amber Miller posted April 22.
“The hawks nest was up there for years. And these been up there for months. So sad to see them go. Were they really in need of a ‘rescue’?” Sandra Leen posted April 22.
Superstition Fire and Medical was advised by a representative from the Liberty Wildlife animal rescue group that the birds did need to be relocated, Dave Montgomery, assistant fire chief and public information officer for the fire district, said during a phone interview April 23.
According to Mr. Montgomery, a concerned citizen from Gold Canyon, who has not been identified, he said, called Arizona Game and Fish about the owls and was referred to Liberty Wildlife, a Scottsdale-based, nonprofit organization that provides wildlife rescue and rehabilitation services, according to its website.
A Liberty Wildlife representative called 911 and told the dispatcher she had a non-emergency incident involving the owls, Mr. Montgomery said. She explained she could not reach the birds and asked for the fire district’s help to reach them, he said.
The representative was later identified as Jamie Morone by Liberty Wildlife Executive Director Megan Mosby in an e-mailed response to questions.
The fire district provides fire and medical services to the city of Apache Junction and portions of unincorporated Pinal County such as Gold Canyon and the areas in-between, according to its website.
The fire district sent a ladder truck and crew to the site, and then sought advice from Ms. Morone, who was at the site, about whether the birds needed to be rescued, Mr. Montgomery said.
“She thought they should come down,” Mr. Montgomery said.
“SFMD would not make the decision to remove these birds, but we do rely heavily on the knowledge and expertise of those who do this full-time,” the fire district posted April 22 on its Facebook page.
Mr. Montgomery said the Liberty Wildlife representative also made the decision to remove the nest from the highway sign to prevent it from falling and becoming a hazard for motorists traveling underneath it.
Mr. Montgomery said by phone it was reported to him that a representative from Apache Junction Animal Control, Paws and Claws Care Center, 725 E. Baseline Road, was consulted about the rescue. Constance Halonen-Wilson, spokeswoman for the city of Apache Junction, said an animal control officer was on-scene to assist if needed, but did not participate in determining whether the birds needed assistance.
“I would guess the animal control folks were just like us, relying on the expertise of the Liberty Wildlife person,” Mr. Montgomery said.
The fire district posted photos of the rescue on its Facebook page April 22. Shortly afterward, some of the district’s followers began posting messages accusing the fire district of acting irresponsibly in its removal of the birds.
“… your citizens want to know that SMFD did their due diligence and we want to know where the owls are and if they are safe and what their future holds. We the citizens have a right to know,” Kayla Cole posted.
There also was a post the afternoon of April 22 from Liberty Wildlife that linked back to the nonprofit’s Facebook page. It read: “Liberty Wildlife was not aware of this rescue. But we have been monitoring the site along with Arizona Department of Transportation. We saw no reason to remove the nestlings at this time. A well-meaning citizen must have called the fire department and had them remove the owlets, because they were concerned for their safety. The nestlings have yet to arrive at Liberty Wildlife. They will be assessed and we are in contact with ADOT, to determine if they can go back into the nest.”
Mr. Montgomery said he spoke on April 22 with a Liberty Wildlife representative named Carol and asked her to post a confirmation that Liberty Wildlife had recommended the birds be removed.
The post appeared the next afternoon, April 23. It read:
“We’ve looked into the events of yesterday and can now fill you in on what happened and update you on the baby owls. Liberty received a call from a concerned citizen about a nest of baby owls located on a highway exit sign. It appeared to the caller that the parents had not been near the nest for a couple of days. It was also stated that one baby might be hurt. A Liberty volunteer rescuer was dispatched to the site and based on what was happening at the time, determined that the owlets were in a precarious situation and needed help. She called the Superstition Fire and Medical District for assistance. The baby owls were recovered and taken to Liberty for assessment and fostering by great horned owl parents. The owls will eventually be released back into the area. It is heartwarming to see so many concerned and caring citizens regarding this matter. Please direct any questions to Liberty Wildlife at 480-998-5550 ext. 1.”
In her e-mail, Liberty Wildlife’s executive director called the incident “a mass of miscommunication.” Ms. Mosby also said, “many caring people were involved in the episode.”
“Most importantly the fire department in no way is to be accused of doing anything but trying to help the owlets. We never like to take babies from the nest, but if there is a danger to the animals or the public (I have been told that cars have been slowing and stopping on the road to observe the owls) we are permitted to remove them,” she wrote in her e-mail. “It is done as a last resort. Thanks for inquiring. I don’t think the public would have liked to see the possibility of owlets run over in the road after prematurely leaving the nest.”

Reach staff writer Wendy Miller at wmiller@newszap.com

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