Listing of pygmy owl as threatened brings new weapon to Interstate 11 fight

Tony Davis

An environmental group says Tuesday’s relisting of the pygmy owl as an imperiled species could provide another weapon for opponents of Interstate 11 construction through the Avra Valley west of Tucson.The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will protect the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl as a threatened species in Southern Arizona and southern Texas, due to threats including climate change, habitat destruction and invasive species. The tiny owls top out at 6.7 inches long and weigh 2 to 2.6 ounces. They nest in various trees and cacti including the saguaro and have been known to concentrate in riparian vegetation along rivers and washes.The listing Tuesday comes a bit more than 17 years since the wildlife service removed the owl from its endangered species list — an action triggered by litigation from homebuilders.This time, the service was pushed to re-protect the bird — although at a lesser status — by litigation from the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. Its lawsuits also led to the original decision to protect the owl back in 1997.

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While the original owl listing resulted in a huge conflict over development in the ironwood forest area on Tucson’s northwest side, much of that land has since been bladed for development, eliminating it as places that could be protected for the owl’s sake.Also, Pima County Board of Supervisors Chair Adelita Grijalva said Wednesday, since county voters in 2004 approved more than $100 million in bond funding for acquisition of sensitive lands, the county now owns or administers more than a quarter million acres of sensitive lands.“With the County’s landmark Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, its companion Multi Species Conservation Plan, and its Section 10 Permit from the U.S. Department of the Interior, relisting of the pygmy owl and any critical habitat designated for it will not result in land-use battles like those of the 1990s and early 2000s,” Grijalva said in a written statement.But the proposed I-11 route through the Avra Valley is a current target of an environmental lawsuit seeking to block its con …

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