How a tiny owl changed Tucson

As the pygmy owl nears local extinction, community leaders vow to continue desert conservation

  • In an effort to protect the pygmy owl, Tucson's Dove Mountain development, shown here during construction in 1999, was scaled back to 6,500 homes from the 9,000 originally planned. The developer and the town of Marana also created a 2,400-acre preserve for the owl

    Mary Chind/Tucson Citizen
  • Pygmy owl


TUCSON, Arizona — Inside the Tortolita Preserve, it’s hard to believe that thousands of homes and three golf courses lie just 10 minutes away. The seven arms of a candelabra saguaro rise in graceful symmetry, and a hiking trail winds beneath green-barked trees in a palo verde tunnel. To the north, the Tortolita Mountains rise in barren ruggedness.

This $10 million, 2,400-acre preserve was hatched by a rare desert bird. A major developer and the town of Marana created Tortolita to compensate for a subdivision’s impacts on the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. The 6,500-home subdivision was by far the largest of 16 projects that developers were forced to alter to protect the tiny bird.

But this may be the last owl sanctuary created in the fast-growing Tucson area. On April 13, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the owl from the endangered list, arguing that nobody could prove that the loss of Arizona’s population would significantly affect the survival of the entire subspecies, which dips well into Mexico.

Environmentalists are challenging the delisting, but if it holds, it will be an ironic climax to one of the West’s most compelling conservation victories. The bird started a revolution in Tucson growth management that could outlive its presence here.

A revolutionary plan

Before the pygmy owl was listed in March 1997, Tucson was a typical Sun Belt city, routinely approving new development despite environmental concerns. Within a year, officials changed their tune. In 1998, facing legal pressure from environmentalists, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry launched the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which aims to save the owl and 34 other vulnerable species by protecting more than 250,000 acres of private land, and, potentially, hundreds of thousands more acres of state land. Voters have already agreed to spend over $100 million in bonds to buy open space.

The plan rests on a suite of federal, county and local regulations. On Tucson’s Northwest Side, federal regulations force developers to either set aside as much as 70 to 80 percent of their land in old-growth ironwood-saguaro forests, or buy land elsewhere. The county’s Conservation Lands System calls for developers to set aside 65 to 95 percent of environmentally sensitive lands when they rezone. On the local level, developers have set aside 60 percent or more of their land in response to prodding from the town of Marana.

No one knows what delisting will mean for conservation measures like these. Huckelberry and Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat say they have no plans to revoke development agreements or scale back open-space guidelines. And last summer, when the Wildlife Service first proposed delisting the bird, Ed Taczanowsky, executive vice president of the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, said he expected the local government regulations to endure. "The development community has adapted in Pima County," he said. "It’s more difficult, but they’ve adapted."

But environmentalists fear that local guidelines could evaporate. "There is no real firm, dependable protection in place for the owl in the county right now, and there is no guarantee there will be in the future," says Jenny Neeley with Defenders of Wildlife.

And with the owl off the list, federal environmental reviews will end. Delisting immediately frees up six projects, including more than 1,200 homes, that were in the middle of environmental reviews they will no longer need. Sixteen existing biological opinions requiring developers to set aside open space in owl habitat will be voided. Nearly 500,000 acres of private and state land could be developed inside what biologists had proposed as critical habitat (HCN, 2/20/06: High Noon for Habitat).

A dangerous precedent

The delisting could have wide-reaching implications for other species as well. Essentially, the Fish and Wildlife Service has declared the southern Arizona population expendable because there are plenty of owls in Mexico. The same case could be made for the grizzly bear and the gray wolf, which are rare in the United States but plentiful in Canada.

Justice Department attorney Jimmy Rodriguez says wolves and grizzlies are different, because a greater percentage of their range is inside the United States. But critics argue that the Endangered Species Act was meant to protect wildlife in the United States regardless of its condition elsewhere. They also say the delisting ignores evidence that the Arizona and northern Mexico birds are so genetically isolated from owls in other Mexican states that they should be classified as a separate subspecies. Scientists, including University of Arizona Professor William Mannan, a wildlife ecologist who chairs the federal pygmy owl recovery team, urged the Service to hold off on delisting until they could gather more information.

But in 2003, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with homebuilders who sued, claiming that the Wildlife Service had failed to prove that the fate of the southern Arizona population would affect the species as a whole. In agreeing to delist the bird, the Service has concurred.

Even if environmentalists succeed in getting the owl put back on the list, it’s not clear it will survive here. On Tucson’s Northwest Side, the bird’s population plunged from 12 adults in 1996 to one male this year. Thirteen adults have been seen this year across southern Arizona, down from 34 to 41 at the close of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Scott Richardson, a Service wildlife biologist, says habitat loss is probably a factor on the Northwest Side. Development may also act as an "ecological trap," luring owls to the trees and water around homes, where they are vulnerable to predators such as house cats and hawks. A seven-year drought and a low starting population could also be factors.

Environmentalists say that stricter Endangered Species Act enforcement could have prevented this by stopping more development, but Richardson isn’t so sure. "What’s done is done," Richardson says. "The results are what they are."

The author is the Arizona Daily Star’s environmental reporter.

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