Worth a quick read. Some interesting points raised.
Rare Arizona Owl (All 7 Inches of It) Is in Habitat Furor
March 17, 2003
By DOUGLAS JEHL
TUCSON, March 13 - At last count, the greater Tucson area
was home to about 900,000 people and 18 pygmy owls. Under
federal law, that ratio is a mismatch.
To protect the owls, an endangered species, the United
States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in November that
1.2 million acres in and around the city be set aside as
"critical habitat" for the birds, or about 67,000 acres per
owl. The designation, issued under a court order, imposes
obstacles to development, so developers in this
fast-growing community are fighting back, calling it
"When you come right down to it, this is about land that
would be lying fallow for no particular good reason, other
than that the environmentalists want to have it that way,"
said Alan Lurie, the executive director of the Southern
Arizona Home Builders Association.
Fights over endangered species like the owl, a
brown-and-cream-colored bird about 7 inches high, are not
new; over the last three decades, they have become a staple
of land-use battles in the West. What is new are the
secondary battles like the one here over "critical
habitat," a designation that has always been required under
the 1973 Endangered Species Act, but one that the Fish and
Wildlife Service has only recently begun to impose in
earnest, under orders from the courts.
The law, cited by environmentalists to compel the
government to act, requires that the designations cover
"all areas essential to the conservation of the species."
But it also allows the government to weigh whether benefits
of a designation outweigh the costs. So in Tucson and other
affected areas debates are raging between developers and
antigrowth advocates about where to draw the lines.
"The purpose of the law is to protect endangered species,"
said Kieran Suckling, the executive director of the Center
for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based organization that
has brought many of the lawsuits that have required the
administration to act. "And here and in lots of other
places, that means getting a handle on uncontrolled
Out of 1,262 threatened and endangered species listed since
1973 under federal law, the federal government has still
designated critical habitats for only 261 of them, mostly
because the Fish and Wildlife Service itself has always
regarded the designations as a lower priority than
identifying which species are endangered.
But in the last two years, the pace of such designations
has exploded, as the Bush administration has found itself
on the losing side of battles in the courts. Although it
has been outspoken in calling the critical habitat
designations counterproductive, the administration has now
designated some 38 million acres of critical habitat for
115 species, more species than any previous administration.
"Rationally speaking, the costs of critical habitat
designation add virtually nothing to the protection of the
species," said Craig Manson, the assistant secretary of the
interior in charge of the issue. "It sucks up a lot of the
resources of the Fish and Wildlife service, and it causes a
lot of social and economic upheaval, and the benefit to the
species is virtually nonexistent, so it just doesn't make
Still, as developers and environmentalists fight over the
final shape of any restrictions, the administration is
finding itself under increasing pressure to take a stronger
stand against what the developers have argued could result
in economic strangulation.
"From the perspective of our members out in Arizona, the
pygmy owl probably represents the pre-eminent problem that
they're finding, not only in building new houses, but in
keeping housing construction affordable," said Jerry
Howard, chief executive of the National Home Builders
Association, an industry advocacy group in Washington.
Because the Endangered Species Act includes strict
prohibitions against the killing, harming or harassing of
listed plants and animals wherever they are found, some
contend that its critical-habitat provisions are
essentially redundant, while imposing new and strict
barriers to development.
But its advocates call the critical habitat provisions
vital in setting aside areas necessary for the species'
recovery as well as their protection, and suggest that any
extra obstacles to development are well worth the costs.
"The pygmy owl, frankly, is what you might characterize as
a canary in the coal mine - an indicator that whatever
we're doing is not quite balancing economic development and
growth with natural resource protection and conservation,"
said Chuck Huckleberry, the county administrator in Pima
County, which is home to most of greater Tucson and is
growing at a rate of nearly 3 percent a year.
The Fish and Wildlife Service tried in 1999 to designate
hundreds of thousands of acres of critical habitat for the
owl. But that designation, after a court challenge by
developers, was struck down in 2001. The government's 1.2
million acre proposal is an effort to reinstate the
protection in a way that could withstand any further legal
>From the outset, the Bush administration has made no secret
of its misgivings about the critical habitat process,
saying that the designations - particularly when required
under court order - divert the Fish and Wildlife Service
from the more important task of determining which species
deserve federal protection.
Under Bruce Babbitt, its interior secretary, the Clinton
administration voiced similar concerns. But the Bush
administration has been more vociferous in its objections,
even proposing in 2001 to allow the Fish and Wildlife
Service to suspend work on the designations for a year and
devote its $9 million endangered species budget to other
Congress rejected that idea, however, and what has happened
since has shifted the battle to places like Tucson, where
in vying over whether and how much critical habitat should
be designated for species like the pygmy owl, the two sides
have presented rival and contradictory visions of what is
For one thing, developers have argued in federal court in
Arizona that the owl is not truly endangered, because the
18 owls in the Tucson area represent just the northern
range of a species more abundant in Mexico.
The courts have so far rejected that argument. But the
developers are continuing to warn that any benefit to the
owl would be outweighed by the economic costs of
effectively barring development in 1.2 million acres, or
two-thirds of the privately held, developable land in the
The developers say that the proposed designation is
excessive and would drive up housing costs by an average of
$7,000 per home. They are seeking to persuade the Fish and
Wildlife Service to shrink the designation significantly,
under the provision of the Endangered Species Act that
allows the government to apply cost-benefit tests.
"People keep moving here, the county keeps growing, and
when you take land out of the supply, the prices go up,"'
said David Goldstein, president of Diamond Ventures Inc., a
major developer in the Tucson area.
The developers have also challenged the Fish and Wildlife
Service's refusal to make public the locations of the owls,
and won a federal court order in November requiring the
release of that information. The agency has so far refused
to comply, saying such information could lead to harassment
of the owls by bird-watchers and others. It has been
negotiating with the developers over a possible
On the other side of the debate are environmentalists and
some local officials who argue that the designation is
important to steer development away from areas important to
a fast-shrinking population of the birds. They point out
that the designation does not prohibit development
altogether, usually requiring in practice only that it be
less dense, and that the designation applies to private
landowners only when projects are subject to federal
The owl, officially the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, was
listed as an endangered species only in 1997, and the
environmentalists point out that surveys taken since by the
Fish and Wildlife Service have suggested that its numbers
have continued to decline. In 1999, according to the
federal agency, some 41 adult pygmy owls were counted in
Arizona, but those numbers dropped to 34 in 2000, 36 in
2001 and just 18 during breeding season in 2002.
"Don't get me wrong, this is a huge economic question for
the area," said Michael Wyneken, a principal planner for
the city of Tucson. "But if we're going to protect what we
love, then we need to roll up our sleeves and find the
answer, and knowing where the birds' critical habitat is
would help the process."
The Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking public comment
about its proposed designation for the owl and is expected
to make a final decision by summer. Under the Bush
administration, the agency's final designations have been
consistently smaller than the original proposals, by an
average of nearly 50 percent. In an interview, Mr. Manson,
the senior interior department official, suggested that
would be a likely outcome in the pygmy owl case.
"There's a provision of the law that says we may exclude
portions of critical habitat, where the benefits of
exclusion outweigh the benefits of inclusion," Mr. Manson
said. "And that's something that we in this administration
have been looking at quite a bit more robustly than has
been done in the past."
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