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Burrowing owls make their nests in the ground and typically inhabit pastureland. ((AP))

Five years ago, Manitoba's burrowing owls pulled a disappearing act.

Conservationists aren't sure why, or where they went, but some recent sightings of the endangered species have them hooting with joy.

"I was elated," said Ken DeSmet, who spotted seven of the short, fat owls near SpruceWoods Provincial Park this spring.

DeSmet won't reveal their exact location in order to protect them but noted they're on private property and said the landowners are taking steps to ensure they're not disturbed.

"I never thought that I'd get to see another burrowing owl in the province because it's been such a long time and there was a move afoot to call it extirpated," DeSmet said.

"So when we found the first one in the spring, we really thought we were looking at a dinosaur or something."

Burrowing owls — which are about the sizeof a robin, with a total length (head to tail) of about 24 cm — make their nests in the ground and typically inhabit pastureland.

Grasslands in decline

Conservationists say declining grasslands (75 per cent of which have been eradicated,according to Environment Canada)are contributing to the decline of the burrowing owl. What's left of the native grasslands, they say,is frequently disturbed by roads, oil patch activity and agriculture, conservationists say.

DeSmet said he can't explain the return of the diminutive bird to Manitoba but he speculated they might have gone to Saskatchewan seeking greener pastures but didn't find what they sought.

Some landowners have taken up their cause and are reporting sightings to Environment Canada to keep track of the surviving populations.

"In most cases, the landowners are more than protective enough in making sure that the various things are done to protect the species," DeSmet said.

"We're actually just monitoring them from a distance and trying to ensure that these pairs are as successful as possible."