Judge weighs hold on delisting of owl

Tucson Region

By Tony Davis
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 06.02.2006

PHOENIX – A federal judge is considering a request from environmentalists to put a hold on removing the endangered pygmy owl from the endangered species list.
The bird’s Sonoran Desert habitat is in imminent danger from several developments, attorney Michael Senatore said Thursday, citing a declaration outlining a half-dozen projects totaling at least 1,200 homes on 4,300 acres. The projects had been undergoing federal environmental reviews until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in mid-April to

take the bird off the endangered list.
Then the reviews were terminated, leaving the developers free to build once they get federal and local building permits.
The Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity used these same projects in mid-May in an unsuccessful effort to get a brief,

temporary restraining order halting the delisting that would have lasted a few weeks. On Thursday, however, the groups were seeking a longer-term injunction blocking the delisting until a federal judge can make a final

ruling on the entire case – which could take six months.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton took the case under advisement after attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department and home-builder groups took turns finding fault with the environmentalists’ arguments. They said these and other threats alleged by environmentalists were speculative and that

the vast majority of pygmy-owl habitat is already protected because it lies in national monuments, national wildlife refuges or Indian reservations – not private land.
Only 6 percent of owl habitat lies on the Northwest Side, compared with
57
percent on the Tohono O’odham Reservation and 16 percent total on four wildlife refuges and national monuments, said Norm James, an attorney representing the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association and two other builder groups.
Bolton herself engaged in a lengthy debate with Senatore over whether the Tohono O’odham Reservation is an important area for the owl. Bolton, as have developers and some scientists in the past, kept saying it’s reasonable to conclude that the reservation could be a good place for owls because it is Sonoran Desert scrub.
Senatore stuck to his view that it’s only "speculative" to say that because little data has been obtained from there. The most recently publicized data from the reservation showed reports of 10 owls found from
1999 through 2002.
Senatore and James said they expected a ruling on the injunction request

in one to two weeks.
Senatore referred to a written statement by Center for Biological Diversity ecologist Daniel Patterson warning that without federal Endangered Species Act protection, "It is all but certain that the owl will disappear from Arizona in short order."
The delisting wipes out 16 previously reached federal conservation agreements for projects setting aside land for the owl that could now also be developed, Patterson also said.
Patterson said that on May 18 he visited one of the six current pending projects, Summit Vistas at Camino de Oeste and Linda Vista Boulevard on the Northwest Side. He was dismayed to learn that native plants including dozens of saguaros had already been flagged for bulldozing or removal.
The
project will entail 260 apartments and four commercial buildings.
But Pima County officials said this week that the developer, Emery Stephen Holdings, has not yet submitted a proposed plat, or development layout, for the project, let alone obtained the grading and building permits needed. Frank Thomson, an engineer for the developers, said he does not know how long it will be before the project starts construction and that

he suspects the saguaros were tagged simply for a routine review for the

county’s Native Plant Preservation Ordinance.
Patterson also warned that increased border-security measures such as "stadium-style lighting" can disturb pygmy owls living near the U.S.-Mexican border and that proposed border fences could block pygmy owl movement because the owls often fly close to the ground.
Justice Department attorney Jimmy Rodriguez, however, said it’s highly speculative to assume that the border fences could rise in the near future, since legislation authorizing them hasn’t yet passed Congress.
Patterson’s claim that delisting the bird will mean no more owl-based environmental measures, such as the raising of medians along North Thornydale Road between Cortaro and Magee roads, also was deemed speculative by Rodriguez and James.
The largest of the six pending projects, the 4,000-acre Mission Peaks near Sahuarita, lies five miles east of proposed owl critical habitat.
Another
project, the 98-acre Cahaza Springs near Apache Junction, is five miles from another project that was found in 2001 to have no effect on the bird, James said. The other four projects total 284 acres, out of a total of
1.2
million acres of proposed critical owl habitat, he said.
Later, Robin Silver, the biological diversity group’s board chairman, said the two projects must have an effect on the owl if the Army Corps of Engineers is putting them through reviews.

? Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com.

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