The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl is on the verge of losing its status as an endangered species.

Apr. 29, 2006 12:00 AM

The removal from the endangered species list is scheduled to take place May 15, unless the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision is overruled in court.

Fewer than 20 of the tiny owls are known to live in Arizona, most of them in an area northwest of Tucson. The delisting decision followed a lawsuit by the home-building industry that wants to develop the area.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, a vice president with the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife who visited Arizona last week, said the battle is not over. Clark, former head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, says Defenders and other groups have taken the next step in challenging the decision.

Q: Why worry about such an insignificant bird?

A: The United States is a leader in conservation of plants and wildlife. Every species is equally important to protect. If this country sidesteps this responsibility, it is sending a message to the rest of the world that we will no longer play a leadership role in conserving and protecting wildlife.

Who are we to decide what’s significant or insignificant? All species play a role in ensuring a healthy functioning and balanced ecosystem.

I liken it to an airplane with missing rivets. No one doubts a plane can fly with a few missing rivets, but if a critical rivet is missing, the plane might crash. I don’t think we have enough knowledge to know what rivet is important. Which missing rivet will cause the plane to crash?

Q: But there are only 20 of these owls in Arizona, and supposedly it is doing well south of the border. Is it that important to have a few birds here?

A: If the Fish and Wildlife Service begins removing species from the list simply because the imperiled species exists in other countries, species such as the wolf, grizzly bear, sea turtles and marbled murrelet could be next, leaving little hope these species would exist in the United States in the future. We have an obligation to protect species within our borders.

Q: Would a focus on this bird come at the expense of other plants and animals on the endangered species list?

A: The number of listings is not the problem; funding is. This administration and this Congress have apportioned too little funding to adequately implement the act.

It is shortsighted to blame the result when, as a country, we have not done near enough to prevent the symptoms from being exacerbated.

The endangered species act comes into play only when local, state and other federal laws fail, thereby leaving it alone to prevent extinction. Triage is taking place all the time; the animal or plant that is closest to extinction gets priority.

Q: What does the decision to delist the owl say about the current environmental atmosphere?

A: It represents politicization of science at its worst. There was no defense of the pygmy owl.

This blatantly political decision has resulted in Defenders of Wildlife and partners filing an official notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its decision to remove the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl from the federal list of endangered species.