TUCSON (CN) - The tiny, cactus ferruginous pygmy owl was denied federal protection though its survival is threatened by urban growth, livestock grazing and border activity, environmentalists claim in court.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife sued the Secretary of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday in Federal Court.
The groups say there are fewer than 50 of the owls left in Arizona.
Sometimes called Cuatro Ojos (four eyes) in Spanish because of the white-outlined dark spots on its nape that look like eyes, pygmy owls are only about 6.75 inches long and are typically reddish brown.
The rarely seen owls live in desertscrub regions of Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. They have large feet and talons for their small size, cream-colored bellies and long tails. In the winter and spring, they nest in saguaro and organ pipe cacti in holes they take over from woodpeckers.
This is the second lawsuit challenging Fish and Wildlife's 2011 denial of a petition to protect the elusive owl under the Endangered Species List. The groups agreed to drop that lawsuit to give the government a chance to complete a new policy that initially determined that the Sonoran Desert qualified as a "significant portion" of the owl's range.
But the groups say now that the new policy, made final in July, puts the owl's survival in question by requiring for listing purposes that a species be endangered in a portion of its range and that the loss of that portion threatens its very survival.
"Despite finding that the pygmy owl is at grave risk in the 'Sonoran Desert Ecoregion' from multiple threats, including habitat degradation and destruction related to urban and agricultural sprawl, livestock grazing, wood cutting, invasive species, and transborder problems, and that avoiding extirpation of pygmy owls in this area is in fact important to 'the taxon as a whole,' the FWS has nonetheless found that the area in which the pygmy owl is imperiled does not constitute a 'significant portion of its range," the complaint states.
"In arriving at this counterintuitive finding that an admittedly 'important portion' of the species' range is not a 'significant portion,' the FWS has applied an interpretation of the phrase 'significant portion of its range' that is contrary to the plain language and patent purpose of the ESA, and that is otherwise arbitrary and capricious."
The plaintiffs seek a court order setting aside the government's final determination refusing to list the owl.
"This policy wrongly delays protection for species until they are on the very brink of extinction throughout the entirety of their ranges, making recovery even more challenging and costly," Jason Rylander, a staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.
"There's no good reason to allow the pygmy owl to disappear from Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, especially when the Endangered Species Act was created to ensure that our nation's wildlife heritage is conserved for the American public. We should not be outsourcing to other countries our stewardship responsibility for preserving our natural heritage."
The plaintiffs are represented by Eric Glitzenstein with Meyer Glitzenstein in Washington, D.C.
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