2013 December Nature News – Small Owls Raise Big Questions


Young cactus ferruginous pygmy owls

Young cactus ferruginous pygmy owls

Flying in the face of convention, the ferruginous pygmy owl often hunts boldly in broad daylight and with audible wingbeats, a big no-no for most owls. In the springtime when mating season is at its peak, the male calls incessantly with a flute-like monotonous tooting. The pygmy owl is an opportunistic eater, hunting small insects as well as super-sized prey like mourning doves that can weigh two and a half times more than the feisty predator.

In Arizona today there are thought to be a total of twenty ferruginous pygmy owls living in the wild, in areas around Tucson and south to the border. This is the northern portion of the owls’ range that extends into the tropics of Mexico. Plummeting populations caused U.S. Fish and Wildlife to list the bird as endangered in 1997. A brouhaha broke out in Tucson when the Amphitheater School District declared plans to build a new high school on land they owned that had been designated pygmy owl habitat. Various factions quickly sank talons into opposing positions in the dispute. Congressman Kolbe organized a public forum for agencies and citizens to state their positions. Three hundred people attended. Read more details at udallcenter.arizona.edu, or search Pygmy Owl Forum.

The forum revealed the mechanisms employed in conflicts around endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife cited their Habitat Conservation Plans, which are developed with input from government agencies, interest groups, landowners and private individuals. The hopeful outcome is that cooperative efforts will provide for economic development and growth while still conserving habitats and species. The Arizona Game and Fish Department favored the use of conservation easements, whereby property owners receive tax breaks or outright cash to keep their land in its natural state.

In the pro-development corner with the school board was Pima County Development Services Department, in charge of long-range land use planning and building permits. They stated that permits should be issued in pygmy owl habitat zones, but those permits should notify builders that harming the owls was a violation of federal law.

The conservation position put forth by the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity was that the pygmy owl wants what most people want – slower, more thoughtful development that includes preservation of open space. The University of Arizona Wildlife and Fisheries department suggested a strategy for preserving an interconnected system of undisturbed riparian vegetative communities. Preservation of substantial areas of ironwood forest where the birds had been observed would maintain the unique Sonoran desert character of the community as well as habitats for indigenous wildlife.

In November 1999, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that environmental groups had failed to prove that building the school would harm the owl. It took bulldozers just two days to clear the site. Later, the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association sued over the endangered species listing of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, claiming conservation efforts were choking off land supplies and raising home prices. The pygmy owl was removed from the endangered species list in 2006. Currently the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife are suing for relisting.

When I was a teenager in the Northwest, the battle was fought between logging interests and preservation of old-growth forests, home of the endangered spotted owl. There logging communities were outraged over the loss of jobs and a historical lifestyle, while conservationists asked what would be left for future generations when the ancient forests were gone. Today those logging communities are riddled with shuttered storefronts while controversies still linger over rights to the remaining unprotected trees. It seems development is winning in the Southwest. Yet sustainability experts point out that without the biodiversity represented by a rich variety of plants and animals, humans will join the ranks of endangered species.

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