Fight to Re-Classify Pygmy Owl as Endangered

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Fight to Re-Classify Pygmy Owl as Endangered

Conservationists Take First Step to Re-establish Protections for the Pygmy Owl

Tucson — The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) today filed an official notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its failure to respond to a petition to re-establish protection for the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl as an endangered species.

The petition asks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the owl as endangered in three possible ways:

  • Just in Arizona;
  • Throughout the Sonoran Desert as a whole (Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico); or
  • Throughout the range of the western subspecies (Arizona, Sonora and Sinaloa). All three entities qualify for Endangered Species Act protection.

“The pygmy owl should never have been removed from the endangered species list,” said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and primary author of the petition. “The pygmy owl is near extinction in Arizona and sharply declining in northern Sonora. It desperately needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act to survive.”

The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl was listed as an endangered species in Arizona in 1997. In 2003, a federal court ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to better explain its decision that the Arizona population is “distinct” from birds in Mexico. In response, the agency removed the population from the list in 2006, arguing that while the pygmy owl is highly endangered, it does not qualify as a “distinct population segment” because it is not significant to the species as a whole.

In delisting the pygmy owl, the Fish and Wildlife Service dismissed scientific evidence that suggested that the owl should be protected throughout the Sonoran Desert and overrode its own biologists by removing the imperiled bird from the endangered species list. An internal Fish and Wildlife Service white paper concluded: “In our analysis of potential DPS boundaries for the pygmy owl, this division presented a logical DPS boundary based on ecological conditions, pygmy owl distribution and genetics.”

“Biologists in Arizona cannot do their jobs to guard and recover the owl, because political appointees in Washington unjustly removed its protection,” said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist and Southwest PEER Director. “The cactus pygmy owl is more endangered than ever, and should be protected again now before it’s too late.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service also refused to consider the fact that the quickly disappearing Arizona population constitutes the last U.S. population of the western subspecies of cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. Instead, it falsely assumed that Texas and Arizona birds belong to the same subspecies.

The pygmy-owl population in Arizona is perilously small and has declined from 41 birds in 1999 to fewer than 30 birds in recent years. Rampant urban sprawl has contributed to the near-extirpation of pygmy owls in northwest Tucson, where only one individual was found in 2006. Likewise, in northern Sonora, surveys demonstrate that pygmy owls have declined by 26 percent since 2000.

“The U.S. is poised to lose yet another species with the imminent disappearance of the pygmy owl,” said Jason Rylander, staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife and co-counsel on this litigation. “Time is of the essence to relist and recover this declining bird.”

To date, the Bush administration has only protected 60 species of plants, animals, and fish, compared to 522 species protected during the Clinton administration and 231 during the elder Bush’s tenure. Under the administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service had not protected a single U.S. species for 735 days. The recent polar bear listing broke this unprecedented streak. This is by far the longest period without a new species being protected since the landmark federal law was passed, surpassing even James Watt, who, under President Reagan, in 1981 and 1982 went 382 days without listing a species.


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