Arizona Pygmy Owl Could Be Relisted as Endangered

WASHINGTON, DC, June 5, 2008 (ENS) – A petition by environmental groups seeking renewed protection for a miniature Southwestern owl has presented enough new information to persuade the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the bird deserves to be considered for relisting as an endangered species.

The agency announced Friday that it will now conduct a one year status review of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl in Arizona.

The petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility offers new information on genetics, taxonomic classification and threats that was not available, or was not within the scope of analysis, when the Arizona population of the pygmy owl was previously listed in 1997 and delisted in 2006.

The petition relies on a recently proposed scientific reclassification of the pygmy owl that recognizes the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl subspecies in southern Arizona, and Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico, as distinct, and with a smaller range than was recognized in 1997 for the subspecies.

A cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl on the
Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.
(Photo by Glen Proudfoot courtesy
Friends of BANRW)

The petitioners seek to list either the entire subspecies, or the Sonoran or the Arizona populations as distinct population segments.

“The pygmy owl should never have been removed from the endangered species list,” said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and primary author of the petition. “The pygmy owl is near extinction in Arizona and sharply declining in northern Sonora. It desperately needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act to survive.”

The pygmy owl population in Arizona has declined from 41 birds in 1999 to fewer than 30 birds. “Urban sprawl has contributed to the near-extirpation of pygmy owls in northwest Tucson, where only one individual was found in 2006,” the petitioners say.

In northern Sonora, Mexico, the petitioners cite surveys showing that pygmy owls have declined by 26 percent since 2000.

“Recently published genetic and taxonomic information, together with updated data on the threats to the pygmy owl and its habitat, are substantial,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle. “Our initial examination of the information in the petition has prompted us to initiate an assessment of the entire subspecies.”

Tuggle is requesting public input on this decision. “Any additional information regarding threats to and conservation of the pygmy owl will be essential to us as we determine whether Endangered Species Act protection is warranted,” he said.

The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl was listed as an endangered species in Arizona in 1997.

In 2003, a federal court ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to better explain its decision that the Arizona population is “distinct” from pygmy owls in Mexico, which are more common than birds in Arizona.

A cactus ferruginous
pygmy owl in
Arizona (Photo by
Mike Wrigley courtesy
U.S. Fish and Wildlife

In response, the agency removed the population from the list in May 2006, arguing that while the Arizona pygmy owl is highly endangered, it does not qualify as a “distinct population segment” because it is not significant to the species as a whole.

On March 12, 2007, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton issued an order affirming the delisting of the Arizona pygmy owl population, as well as a judgment in favor of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, and the National Association of Homebuilders.

These construction industry groups have been litigating to keep the tiny owl off the endangered species list so its presence does not interfere with construction and development.

The developers contend that the Arizona owl does not deserve protection because Mexico, and to a much lesser extent Texas, already has plenty of these birds to prevent their extinction.

The Southern Arizona Home Builders Association maintains that Arizona is inhabited by 20 or fewer of these birds, which are commonly found in Mexico. Halting development in Arizona due to a handful of birds does not make sense to them.

Keeping the owls off the list would free up nearly 500,000 acres of proposed prime owl habitat in Southern Arizona from federal development restrictions under the Endangered Species Act and permit development of these lands.

The delisting remains on appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The environmentalists are pleased that their petition has started a re-evaluation of pygmy owl conservation status.

“Today’s decision is a first step toward correcting the politically motivated, poorly supported, and wrong-headed decision to remove the pygmy owl’s protection,” said Greenwald. “We hope the Fish and Wildlife Service will move quickly to restore protection to this unique bird before it is too late.”

Based on the status review, the Fish and Wildlife Service will make one of three possible determinations:

* Listing is not warranted, in which case no further action will be taken.

* Listing as threatened or endangered is warranted. In this case, the Service will publish a proposal to list, solicit independent scientific peer review of the proposal, seek input from the public, and consider the input before a final decision about listing the species is made. In general, there is a one-year period between the time a species listing is proposed and the final decision.

* Listing is warranted but precluded by other, higher priority activities. This means the species is added to the federal list of candidate species, and the proposal to list is deferred while the Service works on listing proposals for other species that are at greater risk. A warranted but precluded finding requires subsequent annual reviews of the finding until such time as either a listing proposal is published, or a not warranted finding is made based on new information.

Read previous ENS coverage of this issue:

Enviros Petition to Re-List Pygmy Owl as Endangered []

Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl Off Endangered Species List []

For a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chronology of events related to the conservation status of this owl, click here [].

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