Owls and subdivisions clash near Tucson

  • Pygmy owls in captivity

    Sean Justice
 

TUCSON, Ariz. - Some human residents of the desert on the edge of this city grind their teeth when they hear the single-note call of a cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. The tiny owl, which lives in saguaro cacti and ironwood trees surrounding their houses, sounds a monotonous whistle that irritates people so they feel like "blasting the thing," says a recent Game and Fish Department report.

Lately, though, it is developers who find themselves most frustrated by the owl.

In late February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally listed the bird as endangered. Ironically, the listing comes less than a year after state surveys located at least a dozen owls on privately owned desert northwest of Tucson, in the path of the city's growth. This was more owls than anyone knew existed in the last 20 years.

Now, these owls could do something no environmentalist or politician has been able to do: slow or scale back the new subdivisions that are ripping through the Sonoran Desert.

The owl stands less than seven inches tall, weighs less than three ounces and is reddish-brown (hence, ferruginous), with a streaked, cream-colored belly. Until the 1996 discoveries, experts thought the bird had largely vanished from Arizona. Arizona biologists aren't sure why so many suddenly turned up in the Tucson area, although the birds appear to have been drawn to the ironwood tree stands that are thicker in northwest Tucson's mountain foothills than virtually anywhere else in the United States (HCN, 10/3/94).

Now, environmentalists are almost certain to sue to block additional work on two of the Tucson area's largest developments: Red Hawk and Rancho Vistoso, both planned for 5,000 to 10,000 homes, several golf courses and three resort hotels each. The developments lie in lush desert foothills a few miles from where state biologists found the owls last year.

The biologists found the owls on privately owned tracts ranging from less than 10 to 40 acres, near low-density housing. Although a separate survey of Red Hawk's 5,500 acres found no owls there, it could be because the developer surveyed his project in the fall, not between January and June when biologists say the reclusive birds are most likely to be calling.

"These owls migrate. They have to come from somewhere, and the development can block a migration path or their dispersal even if it isn't bulldozing the saguaros that pygmy owls nest in," said Peter Galvin. Galvin is a conservation biologist for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, which had petitioned in 1992 to get the bird listed.

Developers have maintained from the start of the controversy that southern Arizona is at the fringe of the bird's range and that it makes little sense to list it as endangered.

David Mehl, president of Red Hawk's Cottonwood Properties, said he thinks no owls live on the Red Hawk acreage because his biologist could not find even old owl scat on the property.

The bird's listing is "dishonest," says Alan Lurie, executive director of the Southern Arizona Homebuilders' Association. "Experts tell me the bird is prolific in Mexico (so) it is not truly endangered."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, says that studies and surveys found the owl was common to abundant in Southwestern cottonwood-willow riparian forests and mesquite bosques until the mid-20th century. Those habitats started disappearing due to damming, groundwater pumping, grazing, mining and firewood cutting.

State game officials and former federal biologist Tim Tibbitts said that the bird still can co-exist well with humans living in low-density housing of less than one home per acre. High-density development, common in the Tucson area, threatens it most directly, they said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, may try to protect the owl using Habitat Conservation Plans, which allow development to go forward while protecting sections of the bird's habitat.

"I think it could hang on if we could conserve the desert scrub, but I don't think that's real likely," said Tibbitts, who wrote the listing proposal in 1994 and is now a National Park Service biologist at Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona. "The political pressures are pretty overwhelming."

The writer works for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.