Screening Vent Pipes Saves Wildlife

by Cheron Ferland, Wildlife Biologist, US Forest Service

It was several years ago that I first heard about a particular wildlife conflict—one which I assumed occurred infrequently. I saw a photo of a Saw-whet Owl standing in the bottom of a recreation toilet—yep, down in the nasty slurry. By recreation toilet, I mean the ones that you find in national forest and national park trailheads and campgrounds. Somehow that owl was rescued from the unsavory environment. I have retrieved many distressed raptors in my day, but thankfully have never had to execute that type of retrieval. At the time, my impression of the situation was that it was probably very unusual and unlikely. Then I heard about a Barn Owl showing up in another recreation toilet, and a duck in another. And then I read an article called Bird Death Pipes by California Audubon that documented the deaths of 200 birds that were found in one 6” wide x 10’ tall pipe! LCAS President Maeve Sowles highlighted this very issue in her From Our President column in the April 2012 issue of The Quail. 

So as I thought about it more, I realized that wildlife—not just birds, but also reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals—view hollow pipes as potential nesting sites or sources of refuge. They are often curious or seeking shelter or nest sites, and once they enter an open pipe, it is often impossible for them to get out.

This phenomenon has now been documented as occurring in all sorts of open pipes, from small mining claim markers to larger pipes like those on recreation toilets. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has created an informational pamphlet and recommends either capping, filling, or removing pipes on the landscape (see www.fws.gov/cno/conservation/MigratoryBirds

/DeathByPipes-final.pdf). 

The US Forest Service has made screening recreation toilet vent pipes a Best Management Practice (BMP). BMPs are essentially mitigation measures to protect resources. The Willamette National Forest has begun a campaign to screen all of our toilet vent pipes. We’ve also had help from partners like LCAS and the Greater Oakridge Area Trails Stewards (GOATS). LCAS artist Bryan Ribelin designed a wonderful poster that we will install in our recreation toilets to increase awareness of this issue. To date, we have screened 30 pipes. The Willamette National Forest has an estimated 200 recreation toilets, and we hope to have 100% screening within the next few years.