More than 15 years after the pygmy owl lost federal protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed bringing it back.
This time, the service is proposing to list the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl as a threatened species; it had been listed as endangered from 1997 to 2006. The service announced the listing proposal Tuesday and will formally publish it in the Federal Register on Wednesday, Dec. 22.
The proposed “threatened” status reflects the service’s view that while the owl does not face threats that could lead to its immediate extinction, it does face stressors significant enough that it could become endangered in the future.
The most significant threats to the owl outlined in the listing proposal are loss of habitat, proliferation of invasive species, and climate change.
Also, a threatened listing for the bird would carry somewhat fewer restrictions than if it were classified as endangered. But if the new listing were to be approved, following 60 days of public comments, it could still trigger at least some restrictions on development in parts of Pima County, although specific impacts are not known.
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The brown and white owl measures about 6.7 inches and typically lives in holes in saguaro cactuses.
The service’s announcement follows a tangled legal history since it “delisted” the owl in 2006. Two environmental groups since filed a petition and lawsuits in an ultimately successful effort to get the bird proposed for listing again.
“It’s a shame it lost protection for 15 years. It took us another petition and several rounds of litigation to get its protection back,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s clear the situation for the owl has only gotten worse in 15 years. We’re glad we finally prevailed.”
The wildlife service said its relisting proposal followed “a comprehensive scientific analysis.” The proposal is accompanied by a proposed rule that would allow some exceptions, including specific types of education and outreach activities, to restrictions imposed for endangered species.
Also allowed under this rule would be “habitat restoration and enhancement activities that improve habitat conditions for the owl.”
The service based its new proposal on science compiled by "diverse partners" in what's known as a detailed species status assessment. that accounted for past, present, and future threats as well as ongoing conservation efforts. The service describes such an assessment as an analytical process used to deliver "foundational science" to underlie its decisions under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The proposal is to protect pygmy owl populations not just in Arizona, but in south Texas, northern Sonora, western Mexico and northeastern Mexico. The wildlife service legally has the ability to list as endangered or threatened endangered species living in Mexico, but its enforcement powers for Mexican birds are limited compared to those in the United States.
David Godlewski, president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, whose lawsuit led to the earlier removal of the pygmy owl from federal protection, said the group has not yet decided how involved it will get now.
The group’s original opposition and legal strategy was tied to the fact that the owl is much more common in Mexico than in Southern Arizona, where its known population typically did not go above about 40.
“Any time there is an issue that could make it harder to build, increase the cost of housing and set back our economy — such as an endangered or threatened species listing — we take it seriously. At this point, however, we have just begun to learn of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services decision on the pygmy owl and are evaluating whether, and to what extent, we will engage,” said Godlewski.
When the owl was delisted in 2006, the wildlife service concluded the loss of the bird’s small Arizona population would not significantly affect the survival of its entire subspecies. The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl is one of four subspecies of the more common ferruginous pygmy owl.
In 2011, the service refused to relist the owl in response to a petition to do that from the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, concluding once more that, "listing the pygmy-owl was not warranted throughout all or a significant portion of its range."
However, in 2017 a federal judge threw out that decision in response to a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife. The judge ruled that the service incorrectly interpreted Endangered Species Act language authorizing listing of a species that’s endangered or threatened in either “all or a significant portion of its range.”
In 2019, the environmentalists and the wildlife service settled the lawsuit by agreeing that the service would make a new determination by this year.
Today, the service estimates Arizona’s pygmy owl population is in the low hundreds, based on what it called a comprehensive survey effort in 2020, coordinated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Additional pgymy owl populations exist in south Texas, western Mexico, northern Sonora and northeastern Mexico.
Despite the known stressors to the bird, it “currently maintains adequate resiliency, redundancy, and representation across the range,” so it can withstand both catastrophic events and pressures from unusually hot, dry, cold or wet years, the service said in its listing proposal.
But it said the threats are likely to continue, “resulting in continued loss and fragmentation of habitat putting the species at risk of extinction within the foreseeable future.”