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For Immediate Release, March 15, 2007

Contacts: Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495
Jenny Neeley, Defenders of Wildlife, (520) 623-9653

Petition Filed to Protect Pygmy Owl Again As Endangered Species
Protection Sought for Sonoran Desert Population in Arizona and Mexico

TUCSON, Ariz.— Conservationists filed a petition today 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: in just Arizona; in 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.

“The court did not order the agency to delist the pygmy owl,” said Jenny Neeley, southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife. “Our petition includes data that illustrate that the pygmy owl is in danger of extinction throughout the entire Sonoran Desert.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service dismissed scientific evidence that suggested that the pygmy 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.”

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.

"Anti-wildlife politics, urban sprawl, and invasive alien species are killing off this unique owl in Arizona and Sonora," said Daniel R. Patterson, ecologist and southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Tucson. "Owl biologists and science have been ignored too long. Only full Endangered Species Act listing, cooperation with Mexico, and habitat protection will bring back the owl and conserve our Sonoran Desert web of life."

“The Bush administration’s willingness to let the pygmy owl go extinct in Arizona is characteristic of its contempt for the nation’s endangered species,” said Greenwald. “This administration has protected the fewest number of species of any administration since the Endangered Species Act was passed, by far. It has denied protection to species at an unprecedented rate.”

To date, the Bush administration has protected just 57 species — the fewest for any six-year period since the inception of the Endangered Species Act. There were 512 species protected under President Clinton and 234 protected during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. During the last six years of the Clinton administration, just 13 percent of decisions denied protection to species, compared to 52 percent during the six years of the current Bush administration.

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.


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