Many scientists considered federal officials’ 2006 decision to remove the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl from a list of endangered species to be incorrect.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leaders, however, say a lawsuit brought by developers forced their hands in the matter.
Regardless, the numbers of the small, ruddy-colored owls remain low in the Arizona desert — low enough for federal officials to again consider targeting the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service last week announced it would begin a yearlong review of the owl’s status in Arizona, the first step in a process that could place the bird among the country’s protected species.
“In some sense, they’re already late with this finding,” said biologist Noah Greenwald, of the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its de-listing of the owls.
Scientists estimate that fewer than 30 of the pygmy owls remain in Arizona, which they say is home to a “distinct” subspecies of the bird.
In fact, researchers have not seen any of the small birds nesting near Tucson in recent years, according to a 2007 report by Aaron D. Flesch, a senior research specialist at the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources.
Likewise, the number of pygmy owls in northern Sonora has declined precipitously — a 26 percent decrease since 2000.
“No one disagrees that (the owls) are highly endangered,” Greenwald said this week.
The small birds have reddish-brown feathers and cream-colored underbellies streaked with reddish-brown and a long tail. They weigh an average 2.2 ounces and grow to about 7 inches in length.
The owls nest in cavities of large desert plants, especially the giant saguaro cactus. Their diet includes a variety of prey, including lizards, birds, insects and small mammals.
Federal officials had considered the owl endangered in Arizona since 1997, citing the fact that the birds here constituted a “distinct population segment,” vital to the survival of the species as a whole.
A lawsuit filed in 2003 by developers — including the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association — challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service’s classification of the Arizona pygmy owls as endangered. A federal court ruled that the agency needed to better explain its rationale for the decision.
Instead, the agency de-listed the birds in 2006, removing from conservationists’ arsenal all the protections afforded by the sweeping Endangered Species Act.
“We were bound to make a legal argument,” said Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Jeff Humphrey. “The blending of the laws of nature and man doesn’t always work.”
Developers, in their challenge of the owls’ protected status, acknowledged “that, once severed from the rest of the western pygmy-owl population, the Arizona pygmy owls could be considered endangered,” according to court records.
Rather, the developers asserted that federal officials didn’t go far enough in their explanation of the decision at the time.
“All the court said was to do a better job of explaining your decision,” Greenwald said.
The Center for Biological Diversity “likely will try to force (the Fish and Wildlife Service) to agree to a date to finish” its review of the owls’ status, Greenwald added.
Once the Fish and Wildlife Service completes its review of the owls, the agency can make one of three decisions:
• Not to list the birds as endangered;
• To decide the birds merit protection, which would begin another yearlong period of study before finally listing the owls as endangered.
• That the owls deserve protection, but not at this time. Essentially, the birds would be added to a waiting list for potentially endangered species.
The Fish and Wildlife service will take public comments about its latest decision to reconsider the pygmy-owls for protection until Aug. 1.
Comments can be submitted online at http://www.regulations.gov. Or, they can be mailed to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R2-ES-2008-0070; Division of Police and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222; Arlington, Va. 22203.