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Groups threatening to sue feds over lack of protection for tiny owl

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PHOENIX – Known for its small size and auburn color, the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl has environmentalists battling with federal officials over whether or not it should be protected.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Defenders of Wildlife this week filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not protecting the owl under the Endangered Species Act. The groups also object to the wording in the agency’s policy restricting the owl from receiving protection.

“We’re going to sue unless they rescind their policy, which they’re not going to do,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The 6-inch-tall owl makes its home in the saguaros and ironwood trees of Maricopa and Pima counties, living off lizards and insects and an occasional bird. Once found all over the state, the owl’s numbers have dwindled due in part to loss of habitat and prey.

Greenwald said his organization has been waiting for the policy to be finalized so it could challenge the 2006 decision to remove the owl from the endangered species list. The policy was finalized July 31.

The policy’s language narrows what qualifies as an endangered species. Greenwald said this violates the Endangered Species Act, which defines an endangered species as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

The “significant portion of its range” part is what applies to the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, which is only found in the Sonoran Desert, Greenwald said. It is a subspecies of the ferruginous pygmy owl, which is greater in numbers and ranges from Arizona and Texas into South America.

“They came up with this new definition of ‘significant,’” Greenwald said. “Even if the Sonoran Desert disappeared that the species as a whole would still exist.”

Scott Richardson, supervisory biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he couldn’t comment on current or future litigation, but he could talk about the owl and concurred that the population has decreased over the past 10 years.

“The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl is a predator in that system; it controls the prey population and performs other services to the ecosystem,” Richardson said. “If that part was missing, the whole system isn’t quite complete.”

The peak number of pygmy owls was about 50 individual owls with 17 nests that Fish and Wildlife knew about in Arizona, Richardson said. In the past 10 years, that number has dwindled to 20 owls and about five nests.

“Arizona is a rapidly growing area; there’s some effect,” Richardson said. “Natural causes are also a contributing factor: our long-term drought. These owls are dependent on a number of small prey species. With this drought, there’s a lack in the number of prey species.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of listing and protecting land species and freshwater creatures. With the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl’s population shrinking, Greenwald said there’s no debating that it should be on the list.

“The pygmy owl is a great indicator for the Sonoran Desert,” Greenwald said. “Protecting the pygmy owl would protect the Sonoran Desert. There’s no question that they’re endangered.”