Pygmy Power

A Tiny Owl Menaces Tucson's All-Powerful Growth Lobby.
By Kevin Franklin

AN OWL NO larger than a muffin is striking fear into the hearts of some of the biggest movers and shakers in southern Arizona.

The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, a tiny bird that lives in abandoned woodpecker holes and hunts crickets and lizards, is under consideration for endangered species honors.

Both opponents and supporters of the owl's proposed endangered designation agree listing the bird would shake up the Growth Lobby in the Tucson basin.

At the core of the issue is the determination of critical habitat. Currently under consideration for designation as the pygmy owl's critical habitat are portions of Rillito Creek, Tanque Verde Creek, Sabino Creek, Agua Caliente Creek, the Cañada Del Oro Wash and sections of the Santa Cruz River, among others.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists contend healthy desert riparian areas are the bird's preferred habitat. As these areas were destroyed or reduced over the years by development and population growth, the owl populations went with it.

Environmentalists feel saving the pygmy owl requires re-establishing flourishing desert riparian areas. Opponents to the listing see it as an expensive attempt at an impossible dream and a misuse of the Endangered Species Act.

If the owl lands a spot on the list, restrictions on the use of federal money, the issue of federal permits and management of federal lands in this area could put a powerful clamp on development and land use.

For instance, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit to Rancho Vistoso properties for construction near the riparian Honeybee Canyon. If the owl is listed, the Corps would have to determine if the Honey Bee projects threaten the owl's survival. A pair of mated owls has been spotted within five miles of the canyon and may be foraging there.

The final implications of all this are uncertain, but the Growth Lobby is getting the jitters. The Southern Arizona Home Builders Association and the Arizona Mining Association lost no time in filing objections to the proposed listing and paying for environmental consultants to refute claims this region was ever important to the owl.

John G. Rogers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting director, plans to make a decision by next Friday, February 28. For Southwest Center for Biological Diversity biologist Peter Galvin, that's five years behind schedule.

Galvin and a consortium of environmental organizations first petitioned to have the owl listed in May 1992. Since then it's been an uphill battle all the way to get the FWS to recognize the owl as endangered, Galvin complains.

"It's criminal and shameful that the Fish and Wildlife Service has waited this long," Calvin says. "And only because of our petition and four lawsuits has this process moved forward--and they're still delaying and dragging their feet. There's this terrible dark side of this agency. Some of those people in there seem like they hope the species goes extinct, because then they won't have to do anything. They won't have to create a stir."

Consultant Dennis Parker, an Applied Ecosystem Management biologist, disagrees. His firm works for a wide range of clients, including mining interests, ranchers and government agencies. Parker believes the FWS is moving toward unnecessarily protecting the owl.

"This is just another case of taking a real fringe species and listing it at a tremendous cost to a lot of people, for not really very good reasons," says Parker. "It's this kind of behavior that will eventually really jeopardize the Endangered Species Act itself. The more of these fringe species they try to list, the more credibility they're going to lose."

Parker contends the principal habitat for the owl is south of the Mexican border. He argues the local population is subject to tremendous fluctuation, and should not be considered critical to the bird's survival.

Galvin counters that the U.S. habitat once made up 25 to 35 percent of the owl's range, and that the populations in Mexico are under duress or soon will be.

"Mexico has one of the worst environmental records of any country on Earth," Galvin says. "We can't count on Mexico to protect their portion of the pygmy owl habitat."

Tim Tibbits, formerly of the Fish and Wildlife Service, was the lead biologist working to determine the status of the bird from 1991 to 1994.

"Yes, we are on the northern end of its range," he says. "But that doesn't necessarily mean the habitat is fringe or marginal. Part of the reason the listing was even proposed was looking at the historical records for Arizona, when the bird was here 100 years ago, it was not at all uncommon in its appropriate habitat."

Unfortunately, much of that habitat has been destroyed, and it would take a Herculean effort to restore it.

Tibbits now works as a biologist for Organ Pipe National Monument. He believes that even if the bird is listed, government agencies lack the backbone to restore the owl's habitat.

"What it would take to recover the species would be politically unacceptable in the face of sunbelt urban expansion," Tibbits warns.

Regardless of what decision is made next Friday in Washington, D.C., Tibbits' point about the momentum of development in the Southwest may have already decided the outcome.

The future for the tiny owl in Arizona is even smaller than the bird itself. TW

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