Federal Agency Proposes Pulling Pygmy Owl from Endangered List
PHOENIX, Ariz. A federal agency announced that it will propose the removal of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl in Arizona from the list of threatened and endangered species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's action on Monday follows years of legal battles, including an appellate court decision which the agency cited as the basis for its new proposal.
The wildlife service listed the pygmy owls as endangered in 1997, followed by the agency's 2002 proposed designation of 1.2 million acres (480,000 hectares) in Arizona as critical habitat.
The proposed delisting, to be published Wednesday in the Federal Register, also includes the critical habitat proposal, wildlife service officials said during a telephone news conference.
Ruling on a 2001 lawsuit filed by homebuilding groups, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruled in 2003 that the agency had not justified its listing of the owls as significant when considered separately from a broader population that includes owls in areas along Mexico's western coast.
"There are more birds in Mexico," said Larry Bell, acting regional deputy director of the wildlife service. "We have time to address this situation before we run the risk of extinction."
Officials said the publication of the proposed delisting triggers a 60-day comment period and a one-year deadline for adoption of a final rule. In the meantime, the owls remain under protection of the Endangered Species Act, Bell said.
Listing a species, subspecies or "distinct population segment" as endangered provides it with legal protections against harassment, hunting or destruction of habitat.
Bell declined to discuss specifics of the service's decision-making process but said the proposed delisting was decided by officials of the Department of Interior, the service's parent agency. "The region is in favor of delisting at this point," he said.
Less than seven inches (18 centimeters) tall and averaging 2.2 ounces (62 grams) in weight, the yellow-eyed owls have reddish-brown feathers with cream-colored bellies. They nest in the cavities of trees and cactuses in southern Arizona.
The federal designation only covered Arizona but the owls also range southward along Mexico's west coast as far south as the states of Michoacan and Colima and from southern Texas southward into the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, the wildlife service said.
Agency officials said the latest surveys in Arizona found 20 adult owls with five nests, up from 18 owls last year but well below the 49 found in 1999, 34 in 2000 and 36 in 2001. Those figures does not necessarily include all owls but help show trends, officials said.
Even if the owl is removed from the Endangered Species Act, killing it would still be prohibited under a federal law that protects migratory birds, officials said.
A construction industry representative called the service's announcement a step in the right direction and that listing of the bird decreased the amount of building land and increased land costs in the Tucson area.
"It did hinder some development projects," said Edward Taczanowsky, president of the Tucson-based Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. The association was one of the plaintiffs in the 2001 lawsuit.
Nevertheless, the owl and its habitat should be protected by voter approval of Pima county bond financing for purchasing open space for conservation, Taczanowsky said.
An environmentalist disputed that, saying that much of the open space to be preserved is not owl habitat.
"Unfortunately one of the most important habitat areas of the species is in northwest Tucson, an area undergoing rapid urbanization," David Hogan, urban wildlands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said from San Diego.
He said the center and other environmentalists would submit comments opposing the change but expect to have go to court to argue that relevant scientific information is being ignored.
Source: Associated Press