The federal government wants to set aside 1.2 million acres of public and private Arizona land as critical habitat for 18 endangered pygmy owls, a move critics say threatens development of the land for private business and public recreation.
Designating the Tucson land as a critical habitat for the tiny creatures, which span 6 inches and weigh 2 pounds, is necessary because they live in an area facing rapid growth and development, said Maeveen Behan, project director for Pima County.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s call for the land to be set aside is required by the endangered species act. Pygmy owls were added to the government’s list of protected species in 1997.
Area residents, ranchers and home builders say it’s a government effort to stop development and recreation there.
Glynn A. Burkhardt, president of the Pima County Coalition for Multiple Use, called the pygmy owl “the most expensive animal alive.”
“It will be devastating to Pima County to have a large acreage taken out of use to be used as critical habitat,” Mr. Burkhardt said.
Pima County is 6 million acres in size. The 1.2 million acres would give each owl an average of more than 66,000 acres, according to the 2002 count.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the economic loss from the designation will top $108 million over the next 10 years.
The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) called that a low estimate that failed to account for the impact it will have on property values. They estimate the acreage loss will increase the cost of available residential property by as much as $12,000 per home, pricing some buyers out of the market.
Ranching, mining, farming, commercial development, and recreation such as hunting, camping and hiking would be banned in the critical habitat, Mr. Burkhardt said. The designation would also affect school funding, he said, because state property is held in trust, and proceeds from leases and sales are used for education.
“If they want to develop a trail or recreation facility they would have to do consultation to be sure not to impact any habitat important to the owl,” Miss Behan said. Developers also would have to buy four times the size of land they wanted and commit it to conservation.
Doc Lane, president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, said some ranchers also will unfairly be put out of business.
“Apparently, what they think the cows do is run around to find trees with pygmy owls in it and then the cows tear down the trees,” Mr. Lane said.
The owls are abundant in Mexico, but not so in the northern tip of their habitat in Pima County, which runs along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It is in danger of becoming extinct in the United States despite the fact that all it has to do is fly above the four-wire fence into Mexico and they will no longer be extinct,” Mr. Lane said.
“It’s the classic logic and misuse of the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups that wanted to have some way to hamper people who build houses and have ranches wanted to find a little creature they could use to damage the industry and this is the one they picked,” Mr. Lane said.
The habitat designation is being challenged by the NAHB, which took the federal agency to court to force the disclosure of the owls’ locations.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to release its data disclosing locations, but the federal agency is planning to appeal.
NAHB spokesmen said their concern is that the federal agency will drag the appeal past the public comment period, which ends Feb. 27.
“How can anyone in the public determine what land is needed to protect a species when the government won’t even tell us where the owl lives?” said Duane Desiderio, NAHB staff vice president for legal affairs.
“I think they are holding back the data because it is not the best scientific data available and does not ultimately justify putting aside 1.2 million acres of land, but we can’t make that determination until we see the data,” Mr. Desiderio said.
“The government has never produced any valid science for its decision-making,” Mr. Desiderio said.
A Fish and Wildlife spokesman said locations of the owls are being kept secret to protect the species and private property owners.
“We are concerned that it is such a rare species, birders tend to flock to the location to try and get pictures and often times there are cases of harassment of the owls,” said Fish and Wildlife spokesman Scott Richardson.
Federal officials are also concerned bird-watchers would trespass on private property, and owners would be less likely to cooperate with researchers.
The proposed habitat in Tucson would be nearly as large as the spotted owl’s habitat in California, where 1.4 million acres were put off-limits after the bird was declared endangered in 1989. The move devastated the local economy.