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Know the West

Pygmy owls lose one in court



Since the federal government listed the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl as endangered in 1997, it has been a point of conflict between developers and slow-growth advocates in Tucson (HCN, 8/30/99: A pocket-sized bird takes on Sunbelt subdivisions). Now, a federal district judge has removed some federal protections for the tiny owl's habitat.

In July 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated more than 730,000 acres in southwestern Arizona as critical habitat; the designation meant that all developers building in those areas had to consult with the agency before beginning their projects. In May 2000, a coalition of developers, led by the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, filed suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the agency failed to study economic impacts of the critical habitat designation. They said the pygmy owl protections had already cost builders billions of dollars.

In September, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton sided with the developers. Though her ruling kept the owl on the endangered list, she remanded the critical habitat designation back to the agency for revisions that include economic impacts. She also rejected a motion to preserve current critical habitat until the new designation is released.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Jeff Humphrey says some owl protections remain in place. Developers building near known owl sites or requiring federal permits must still consult with the agency. Tucson's northwest side, under heavy development pressure, remains protected by strict county regulations.

But developers further north, in areas without known pygmy owl sites, may now build without consulting the Fish and Wildlife Service. Many of these unprotected lands are covered with the dense scrub and cacti favored by pygmy owls, and biologists say this land is key to the species' recovery.

Humphrey says that, due to lack of funds, it may be a year or more before the agency designates new critical habitat for the owl. The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity has threatened to sue to force the agency to act sooner.