Friends of the Desert #4

Friends of the Desert
E-News Issue # 4
February 16, 2001
*A project of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection*
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The Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association (SAHBA) has filed a
lawsuit against Pima County, alleging the county exceeded its
authority by enacting what they consider an "informal moratorium" on
building in pygmy-owl habitat on the northwest side of Tucson. This
claim stems from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry’s direction
to county staff not to issue any new permits in the owl’s critical
habitat until developers prove, in writing, that the U.S. Fish &
Wildlife Service has approved plans to protect the owl and its
habitat. Of the 22 projects halted because of Huckelberry’s
directive last December, three have complied with the new regulations
and received county authorization to proceed. At the February 13
Board of Supervisors meeting County attorneys were instructed
to "vigorously defend" the lawsuit.

Two recent studies shed new light on pygmy-owl populations in
Arizona. The first, a study of the genetic diversity of ferruginous
pygmy-owls conducted by researchers for Pima County, found that there
is little genetic diversity among the population of owls residing in
the northwest side of Tucson. The findings suggest that the
Northwest owl population is separate from those in the Altar Valley,
Sonora and Sinaloa. According to Glenn Proudfoot, a Texas A&M
University research assistant who has studied the pygmy owl
extensively since 1994, populations without genetic variation are
considered imperiled, either because of low numbers, inbreeding or

In response to the study County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry
stated that officials must now pay more attention to the Northwest
Side birds than they have thus far. Solutions include stricter
development controls, restoring some developed areas to allow birds
to fly from one population center to another, and possibly importing
other owls to breed with the Northwest’s population.

The other study, conducted by the University of Arizona and federal
biologists, surveyed pygmy owl populations in Sonora, Mexico. The
survey found 280 birds from near the Arizona border to Sonora’s
southern end near Sinaloa. The study’s findings give hope for the
possibility of natural or possibly man-aided migration of owls from
Mexico to propagate with those in Arizona, which would aid in the
survival and recovery of the imperiled Arizona population. This
finding, however, does not affect the state’s owl numbers, which
hover between 30 and 40 individuals, because the Endangered Species
Act doesn’t allow the federal government to consider Mexican birds.
And, even if the population under consideration were to increase by
300, the number is still so low that the species would still be
considered endangered.

The Toltec Power Plant Project is planned for 4000 acres of land
roughly 4 miles or so east of the Sawtooth Mountains, which are
within the newly established Ironwood National Monument in southern
Pinal County. The proposed power plant will cost about $1 billion
and will be operational sometime in 2003. The project will be
constructed in phases and at total capacity will provide up to 2,000
megawatts of electricity, using approximately 10,000 acre-feet of
groundwater per year.

The owners of the plant, Southwestern Power Group II, LLC, have held
several informational meetings in Pinal County, and have encountered
mostly opposition from residents who are concerned about the amount
of water required and the disastrous effect this may have on the
aquifer. The owners claim that they intend to recharge the aquifer
with CAP water, but they don’t know, at this point, if it will work.
Another prevalent concern, in light of the energy crisis in
California, is that the electricity produced will not benefit local
areas, but will be sold to out-of-state energy markets. While the
owners insist that this electricity will be for local markets, there
is nothing to stop local purchasers from selling electricity to other
markets around the country and in Mexico.

For more information on this issue please call Jon Shumaker at 520-

In an effort to mitigate the damage done last year when the Pima
County Department of Transportation unlawfully bulldozed critical
pygmy-owl habitat along Cortaro and Thornydale Roads, the County has
placed 175 boxed ironwood, palo verde and mesquite trees along the
project area’s northern section. This effort came just days before
the beginning of the owl’s breeding season. Because the bird flies
only in short hops of less than 100 feet, placing trees along the
edges of the road will shave pygmy owls’ flying distances between
trees and improve chances that the bird will be able to cross the
road. This is crucial during breeding season when the owls must
venture out of their immediate territory to search for mates.

— The County expects to have the first draft reserve design out
sometime this April. The first draft will the biologically preferred
alternative the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, and will be our
first look at lines on a map. The first public meeting on reviewing
the draft plan is scheduled for March 22. We will let you know
details as soon as we find out.

— Public meetings will be held regarding the Buenos Aires National
Wildlife Refuge Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and
Environmental Assessment, which was released for public comment in
December. The first meeting will be held from 6pm to 8pm Wednesday,
February 21, at the Holiday Inn located at 4550 South Palo Verde
Blvd. The second meeting will be held from 4pm to 6pm Thursday,
February 22, at the Arivaca Community Center. If you have any
questions please contact Refuge Manager Wayne Shifflett at 520-823-

— The 19th annual Tucson Peace Fair and Music Festival will take
place on February 24th 2001 from 11 AM to 5 pm. at the Reid Park
Bandshell. The Fair is a gathering of Tucson’s peace, social
justice, environmental, and labor organizations. The Coalition will
have a booth at the festival, so come out and enjoy a day in the park
with us! If you are interested in volunteering for this event please
contact Carolyn at 388-9925.

— Are you are interested in becoming more involved with Coalition
activities, or would you like to spend a few hours a month working on
a great and important cause? If so, let us know! The Coalition is
always looking for volunteers to assist with various projects.
Please contact us at 388-9925 or and let us know
your interests, special talents or skills that you think might help
us further our work. We look forward to hearing from you!