This little Boreal Owl was likely searching for a nest cavity when he flew down the vent of a vault toilet and got stuck in the muck. US Forest Service staff rescued him, but he succumbed to a bacterial infection a few days later. His story is all too common. Thousands of small owls, kestrels and other cavity nesting birds become entrapped and perish in vault toilets every year. Laura Johnston of Grand Junction, Colorado is on a mission to keep these species safe by covering the vent openings to vault toilets with Teton Raptor Center's Poo-Poo Screens.
Come summer, you will find Laura greeting visitors in Grand Teton National Park, where the retired elementary school teacher has worked for six years. As a Park Ranger, she strives to help visitors make conservation part of their everyday lives. "We always talk about how when they come to the parks it's exciting," she explains, "but it's more about making [conservation] part of every day life." All of the vault toilets in GTNP are equipped with Poo-Poo screens, and she shows visitors how these screens protect owls, kestrels, and other cavity nesting animals. At the end of last summer, when she returned home to Grand Junction, Colorado, she decided to "walk the talk" and start a conservation initiative of her own.
The Poo-Poo Project is a perfect fit for her semi-nomadic lifestyle because she can continue to fundraise and organize screen distribution remotely. It's a straight-forward project with a direct impact, and she has one hundred percent buy-in from the agencies in her area that operate vault toilets. The Grand Junction community rallied to her cause, and the Grand Valley Audubon Society awarded her a grant to purchase her first screens, which she distributed in 2015. She frequently speaks in front local conservation groups, where private donors give her money on the spot to buy a few screens and expand the project. She receives donations through grants and private donors, purchases screens, and distributes them to local land agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, and Colorado State Parks. She received another Audubon grant for $1000, which will purchase an additional 35 screens and bring her total to over 100 distributed!
The most inspiring part of Laura's story is that she doesn't think her project has been all that difficult. "It's really pretty easy to do a project oneself," she says. "It's a question of not taking on something that's impossible but taking on something that's realistic, and plugging away on it." You don't have to work at a non-profit, have a bazillion dollars, or earn a PhD to spearhead a conservation project. You just need a little time, gumption, and a desire to make the world a better place, one vault toilet at a time. The owls of Grand Junction, Colorado are safer tonight because of Laura Johnston's heroic efforts.
Since 2013, TRC's Poo-Poo Project has distributed 6,855 screens to 189 partners in 21 states. Want to spread the Poo-Poo project in your own town? Contact David Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org), Poo-Poo Project Coordinator, for help getting started. You can sponsor a Poo-Poo screen here!