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Pygmy owl may get new protections, 15 years after feds removed desert bird from endangered list

More than 15 years after developers successfully sued to lift federal protections for the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, which lives in the Tucson area, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has moved to again preserve the diminutive desert owl.

The agency announced Tuesday that it was working to list the pygmy owl as a threatened species. This is a downshift from the owl's previous listing, when from 1997 to 2006, the bird was listed as an endangered species — and stymied the construction of several Tucson-area housing developments.

Surveys indicate there are just a few hundred of the tiny birds remaining in the Tucson region.

Federal officials said that the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl — a tiny 7-inch long owl that weighs around 2.6 ounces, just over the weight of a tennis ball — should be classified as a threatened species under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The decision comes after a 12-month review of the pygmy owl's habitat, launched after the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Defenders of Wildlife submitted multiple petitions and lawsuits demanding the bird's protection.

"After a review of the best available scientific and commercial information, we find that listing the subspecies is warranted," FWS said. The agency has said that the owl's "threatened" status reflects the agency's view that while the owl does not face threats that could lead to its immediate extinction, it does face stressors significant enough that it could become endangered in the future. 

FWS said that the most significant threats to the owl are habitat loss and fragmentation, and climate change, "resulting in hotter, more arid conditions throughout much of the subspecies’ geographic range." 

The owls live in saguaro cacti and trees, and are "secondary-cavity nesters," meaning they rely on holes excavated by woodpeckers and other species to build their nests. Reddish-brown, with a cream-colored, streaked belly, the owls prey on a variety of insects, lizards and small mammals. 

"We have determined that the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl meets the definition of a threatened species; therefore, we are proposing to list it as such," the agency said. "To the maximum extent prudent and determinable, we must designate critical habitat for any species that we determine to be an endangered or threatened species" under the Endangered Species Act.

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Diminutive owl creates outsized fight

In 1992, the Center for Biological Diversity successfully petitioned federal officials to protect the pygmy owl as an endangered species. However, following a long-term battle over the owl's habit — including the tiny bird's role in holding up a 6,500-home subdivision in Marana that resulted in the creation of the 2,400-acre Tortolita Preserve — the owl was delisted. FWS removed the owl from the endangered list, arguing that it was unclear whether the loss of the bird's population in Arizona would significantly harm the survival of the entire subspecies. 

However, there are signs that the owl is losing habit throughout its range.

In Texas and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, the pygmy owl is threatened by agricultural development and human population growth, and further south into Mexico, pygmy owl numbers are higher, but habitat loss to urbanization and agriculture is ongoing and the species is expected to continue to decline, the Center for Biological Diversity said. 

"It’s beyond sad that threats to the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl are so severe, but I’m glad it’s finally getting badly needed protection under the Endangered Species Act," said Noah Greenwald, the Center’s endangered species director. "The Sonoran Desert is unravelling before our very eyes. If we don’t act fast, the pygmy owl, along with the saguaro cactuses it calls home, will be only a memory."

In 2014, the Tucson environmental group sued federal officials over the decision to delist the pygmy owl, and a federal court agreed, ruling that federal officials incorrectly interpreted the Endangered Species Act. In 2019, a federal court gave FWS a deadline to reconsider the owl's status, ruling that the agency had until Aug. 5, 2021, to publish a 12-month finding as to whether listing the pygmy owl is warranted. 

FWS said that its notice Wednesday, including the 12-month finding, months after the court-imposed deadline. 

The agency said that the owl's "threatened" status would carry fewer restrictions than an endangered classification, but the listing would require some education and outreach activities as guided by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and could require habitat restoration and "enhancement activities" to improve habitat conditions for the pygmy owl.

An estimate of the bird's population in Arizona is in the low hundreds, based on a survey conducted in 2020 by Arizona Game and Fish. 

FWS said that it would accept public comment over the next 60 days, including reviews on the effects and benefits of "properly managed" grazing in owl habitat, as well as the threat of current or historical improper grazing in both the United States and Mexico. 

"If we finalize this rule as proposed, it would add this subspecies to the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and extend the Act’s protections to the subspecies," the agency said. 

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The federal agency said that the rule will be based on the "best scientific and commercial data available" and must be "accurate and as effective as possible." "Therefore, we request comments or information from other governmental agencies, Native American Tribes, the scientific community, industry, or any other interested parties concerning this proposed rule." 

As part of the process, Game and Fish will a public informational session, followed by a public hearing via Zoom, on Jan. 25, 2022. 

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Bob Miles/Arizona Game and Fish

A cactus ferruginous pygmy owl

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