Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, March 30, 2017

Contact:  Noah Greenwald, (503) 484-7495,
Craig Miller, (520) 404-9836,

Court Overturns Denial of Endangered Species Protection for Fierce Little Owl

Pygmy Owl Decision Tosses Policy Limiting Species Qualifying for Protection

TUCSON, Ariz.— In response to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, a federal judge in Arizona late yesterday overturned a 2011 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denying endangered species protection for the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.

The court also overturned a policy that made it far more difficult for species at risk of extinction in important portions of their range to gain federal protection. The pygmy owl faces serious threats to its survival in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico, but the agency denied protection anyway, arguing it was secure elsewhere. 

“This landmark decision is a lifesaver for this fierce little owl, and for many other species across the country,” said Noah Greenwald, the Center's endangered species director. “Without endangered species protection, the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl is at real risk of disappearing from the Sonoran Desert. I'm so glad it's back on track for protection.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, an endangered species is defined as any species that is “in danger of extinction in all or a significant of portion of its range,” meaning that a species need not be at risk everywhere it occurs to qualify for protection. The policy just overturned by the court, however, set a higher bar by requiring not only that a species be endangered in a portion of its range, but also that the loss of that portion threaten the survival of the species as a whole. In the case of pygmy owls, this meant that even though there is no disagreement that the species is at risk of being lost in the Sonoran Desert, it was denied protection because it may survive elsewhere.

“If this policy had been around in the 1970s, the bald eagle, grizzly bear and gray wolf would never have been protected because they were doing well in Canada and Alaska,” said Craig Miller, with Defenders. “The court was right to overturn this policy and force the government to reconsider protection for pygmy owls.” 

The population of pygmy owls in Arizona is perilously small, likely numbering fewer than 50 birds. Likewise, in northern Sonora, surveys demonstrate that pygmy owls have been declining. Across the Sonoran Desert, the owl is threatened by urban sprawl, invasive species, fire, drought and other factors.

“The Sonoran Desert's pygmy owls are unique and deserve our care,” said Greenwald. “And the protection of pygmy owls has proven to be a benefit to southern Arizona's people — it's helping to preserve native Sonoran Desert habitats that are a source of solace and joy for many.”

The groups were represented by Eric Glitzenstein of Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks, a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C.

In response to a 1992 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the pygmy owl was protected as an endangered species in Arizona from 1997 to 2006. Following a 2001 suit brought by developers, however, protections were removed in 2006 based on a technicality. The Center and Defenders filed a new petition in 2007, leading to the denial of protection in 2011 and finally to today's decision.

Cactus ferruginous pygmy owl

Photo by Bob Miles, Arizona Fish and Game Department. Images are available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.2 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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