I-11 Lawsuit Update: New Legal Challenges Filed for Threatening Endangered Species

Cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, photo by Sky Jacobs. 

Lawsuit Challenges Federal Officials for Failing to Protect Endangered Species Along Proposed Arizona Interstate

TUCSON, Ariz.— Conservation groups filed new legal challenges against the Federal Highway Administration today for failing to consider harms to threatened and endangered species, including the newly listed cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, from the proposed Interstate 11 in Arizona.

“The agencies involved failed to consider the devastating harm from this project to already struggling plants and animals,” said Carolyn Campbell of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. “They’ve ignored the concerns of local communities, state and federal agencies, Tribal Nations, and conservationists. That alone is reason to stop this proposed project in its tracks.”

“Interstate 11 would decimate habitat for cactus ferruginous pygmy owls, who play a vital role in maintaining the health of the Sonoran Desert,” said Russ McSpadden, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“These small but fierce birds nest and raise their young in saguaro cacti and other desert trees that would be bulldozed for the highway’s construction. We’re fully committed to protecting these rare owls and their habitat from destruction.”

In 2022 the groups sued the Federal Highway Administration saying it sidestepped required environmental review before approving routes for the 280-mile-long highway between Nogales and Wickenburg. Today’s amended complaint says the agency also failed to analyze the highway’s threats to endangered species, as required under the Endangered Species Act. In July the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protected the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl as threatened. The agency identified highway development, and Interstate 11 specifically, as a significant threat to the owl’s survival. Conservation groups say the owl’s new protections require federal officials to go back to the drawing board before moving to the next phase of choosing the highway’s exact route through Pima County.

In addition to the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, other protected species whose habitat would be destroyed by the highway include Western yellow-billed cuckoos, Yuma Ridgway’s rails, Southwestern willow flycatchers and Pima pineapple cactus.

“Interstate 11 is a massive highway project that will have devastating impacts on habitat connectivity for some of Arizona’s most iconic and endangered species,” said David Robinson, director of advocacy at the Tucson Audubon Society. “We’re taking this action to ensure that the Federal Highway Administration and the Arizona Department of Transportation comply with the law and protect these important plants and animals from extinction.”

“We won’t stand by and watch our beloved desert destroyed for a highway we don’t need, that local governments don’t want and that local groups have told ADOT is completely wrong,” said Tom Hannagan from Friends of Ironwood Forest. “The Sonoran Desert is a treasure worth protecting.”

In November 2021 the Federal Highway Administration approved the 280‐mile‐long corridor for Interstate 11. Proponents envision it as part of an interstate route to Las Vegas that could eventually be expanded to cut across the entire western United States between Mexico and Canada. The Arizona Department of Transportation will decide the route through Pima County. Objections to the proposed west option have come from the city of Tucson, city of Sahuarita, Pima County Board of Supervisors, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service. Their concerns include increased suburban sprawl, groundwater contamination, and degrading the wilderness, wildlife habitat and recreational values of Saguaro National Park West, Tucson Mountain Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument. They’re also concerned the interstate would lead to development of conservation lands that have been set aside to mitigate the harm from other projects, including the Bureau of Reclamation’s Tucson Mitigation Corridor, and lands protected under Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.