Following multiple petitions and lawsuits, the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl has a new chance for protection under the Endangered Species Act. As part of a lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife today obtained a court-enforceable deadline — Aug. 5, 2021 — for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether the pygmy owl should again be protected as an endangered species.
“We’re so relieved this little owl is finally going to get another shot at desperately needed protection,” said Noah Greenwald, the Center’s endangered species director. “The Sonoran Desert wouldn’t be the same without the pygmy owl stealing lizards from the desert ground and bringing them back to saguaro cavities to feed their young.”
The pygmy owl was protected as an endangered species from 1997 to 2006, before an industry lawsuit and the Bush administration’s subsequent decision to strip protection from it. This decision was not based on any improvement in the pygmy owl’s numbers but rather on the flawed argument that the Sonoran Desert population, which occupies portions of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, was insignificant. After 2006 monitoring for the owl and other protection efforts largely dried up.
“Protections for the pygmy owl should never have been stripped,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “But it’s not too late to save them. We are asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to follow the science and take action before the pygmy owl is gone from the Sonoran Desert forever.”
Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which is a United Nations panel made up of hundreds of scientists from around the world, issued an alarming report that more than 1 million species are at risk of extinction. Like many of these species, the pygmy owl is threatened by destruction of its habitat to urban sprawl, livestock grazing and conversion of native desert to African buffelgrass.
“Stopping the extinction crisis begins right here at home,” said Greenwald. “For the pygmy owl and so many more species on the brink, we have to do more to stop destruction of their habitat, particularly with climate change looming.”
In response to a 1992 petition from the Center, 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 a denial of protection in 2011 and a court challenge won by the groups in 2017. With today’s order the pygmy owl will finally be reconsidered for protection.