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Arizona’s Pygmy Owl Struck From Endangered Species List

An announcement last Thursday that the pygmy owl will be removed from the federal list of endangered species will enable the government to direct its limited resources toward species that are more in need of protection, according to NAHB. The decision is effective May 15.

“As home builders, we want to protect species when they are endangered, but this was clearly not the case for pygmy owls,” said NAHB President David Pressly. “This decision is a victory for sound science and for affordable housing.”

The action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended more than nine years of legal wrangling over the status of the pygmy owl, which flourishes just across the border in Mexico but also includes a small population in Arizona, the northernmost edge of the bird’s range. Officials proposed setting aside 1.2 million acres of critical habit for the 18 solitary pygmy owls found in the state in 2002.

Arizona pygmy-owls will still receive protection through the Migratory Bird Act and non-federal initiatives such as the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

NAHB had long objected to the owl’s listing, and economists at the association estimated that the critical habitat designation would have cut residential construction in the Tucson area by 262 homes annually, reduced local economic activity by $545 million over a 10-year period and deprived local governments of $68.3 million in tax and permit revenue. The designation would have cost 705 jobs in the first year alone and 2,750 over 10 years.

NAHB entered the Arizona case when it became apparent that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to follow its own policies in its decision to list the owl. Under its Distinct Population Segment (DPS) policy, the agency can extend full Endangered Species Act protection to specific subpopulations of a species even when this is not needed to protect the species as a whole. However, in the owl’s case it didn’t establish that the bird was in fact a distinct subspecies.

Jerry Howard, NAHB’s executive vice president and CEO, noted that scientific information, court rulings and the agency’s own professional judgment that the owl was incorrectly listed under the DPS policy all contributed to the Service’s decision to remove the pygmy owl from the endangered species list.

“NAHB has a national interest in ensuring the consistent application of the DPS policy when listing subspecies and even subpopulations,” Howard said, “because of the act’s tremendous impact on private landowners.” He added that a team of association staff with regulatory and legal expertise on the owl listing had worked long and hard along with NAHB member volunteers to successfully resolve the issue.

Adhering to an August 2003 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the agency’s action was “arbitrary and capricious,” and after reviewing information on the owl, public comments and its own policy, the FWS, in a statement published in the April 14 Federal Register, concluded that “we do not believe that the Arizona [population] of the pygmy owl qualifies as an entity that can be listed under the act.”

For more information, e-mail Christopher Galik at NAHB, or call him at 800-368-5242 x8663.

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