Syracuse Scout's 'Poo-Poo Project' saves Antelope Island birds from foul finish

Friday , May 19, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

SYRACUSE — They’re smelly and a little awkward, but Bjorn Tolman wants to get those who visit our parks thinking about vault toilets.

Specifically, the 16-year-old is raising awareness about the hazard they pose to curious birds that fall into them through the vents and meet a miserable end. Birds are drawn to the cavity from the toilet vent pipe on the restroom roof. They topple in and become trapped in the muck below.

Bjorn decided to tackle that problem with his Eagle Scout project. With a little help from 14 other Scouts in Troop 338, he installed 21 bird-friendly vent screens at Antelope Island State Park this week.

“Definitely, there was a need for it,” he said. “I was looking at the island, and it’d be a shame to have all these birds getting stuck down there, especially because it’s stinky.”

Bjorn got the screens from the Wyoming-based Teton Raptor Center’s Poo-Poo Project. They’re specially designed for the waterless toilets typically seen near trailheads, visitor centers and campgrounds.

Poo-Poo Project screens have been installed by 270 partners throughout the nation, but this is the first time they’ve been part of a Boy Scouts project. 

“There are so many kids looking for Eagle projects in Scouting, and this is a project that could be duplicated anywhere in the country,” said David Watson, the Poo-Poo Project Coordinator. “Bjorn’s the first to do it in the U.S. He could be a true trendsetter.”

Poo-Poo Project screens have been installed on many toilets on federally managed public lands in the state, like the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and Canyonlands National Park.

Bjorn’s project, however, also marks the first time Poo-Poo Project screens have been installed at a Utah state park.

Jolene Rose, a biologist at Antelope Island, said she’d like to see other state parks follow Bjorn’s lead.

“Seeing a bird in the toilet is not a fun thing,” she said. “I’m the only biologist who works for state parks, so probably a ranger up in Hyrum (State Park) has never thought about a pit toilet being an issue.”

Rose recognized the problem when she stated working at Antelope Island in the late 1990s. She cobbled together her own solution using chicken wire and hose clamps. But snow can collect on those covers and block the vent. They’re also prone to blowing off in the wind — an issue Rose had to grapple with around seven years ago at a toilet in Bridger Bay.

“I came to work one Monday and I had four emails (saying) there’s this barn owl in the toilet,” she said. “Then someone posted on Facebook, ‘You have a dead bird.’” 

It’s hard to get a handle on how often birds get caught in vault toilets. Rose figures park guests first noticed that barn owl because they heard it flapping around before it died.

“I’m sure there are many, many more we just don’t know about,” she said. “How many people look in the toilet?”

Several bird species seek out cavities to nest, including kestrels, woodpeckers and waterfowl. That’s why they’re sometimes drawn to toilet vents.

On Antelope Island, the pipes also make good scouting spots.

“Out here, it’s the only thing to perch on in the entire park,” Rose said. “There are no trees, there are very few signs and they need somewhere to perch.”

When Bjorn approached her earlier this spring about his Eagle Scout project idea, Rose was eager to support a more fail-proof method of saving the birds.

“When he came and met me, he had (a screen) in hand,” she said. “I went, ‘Oh, I want these. I’ve been wanting these for years.’ ”

The Poo-Poo Project screens are easy to install — they screw right into the vent pipe — and have a 3/4-inch gap so the toilets continue to have air flow even when the screens collect snow or debris. 

“They’re really simple. There’s a nice grate. ... You set it on top of the vents … and put the screws in,” Bjorn said.

The screens typically cost around $30 each. The Poo-Poo Project gave Bjorn 10 donated screens and Utah State Parks covered costs for the rest. 

Vault toilets aren’t the only human-made cavities trapping birds. Watson said the Teton Raptor Center has noticed issues with irrigation pipes, fence posts and PVC pipes stuck into the ground as mining claims. They make customized grates to fit various pipe openings, but the toilet screens make for a unique public awareness campaign. 

“There are all kinds of open pipe issues, but we are trying to tackle the vault toilet pipes first ... they’re all across the United States and might open the door for us to help cap other open pipes around the country,” Watson said. “The (Poo-Poo Project) name is kind of catchy, people remember it, they have a hard time keeping a straight face when they hear it. It breaks down barriers.”

To date, the Teton Raptor Center has sold 8,738 of the screens in 35 states. The center’s year-end goal is to install 10,000 in all 50 states. 

For Bjorn, installing them at the state park near his home in Syracuse made sense. So did protecting all the birds he often sees while camping, biking and visiting Antelope Island.

“All the beauty in this ecosystem ... birds are a great way to keep it going,” he said after installing his first Poo-Poo project screen at the Antelope Island Marina.

“It’d be a shame for those birds to get stuck down there.”

For more information about the Poo-Poo Project or to donate a screen, visit tetonraptorcenter.org or call 307-203-2551. 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiaoutside or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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