Native Sonoran birds listed as threatened species may be harmed by Interstate 11 project

Published: Jul. 20, 2023 at 6:46 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - For the first time in years, and after years of legal battles, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the pygmy owl as a threatened species.

The pygmy owl only grows up to 6 to 7 inches, but despite its small size, it has a big appetite, often munching on bigger birds and lizards. They often find shelter in saguaro cacti, but the need for development in Pima County has threatened their numbers.

The owl population has been declining since the early 90s, prompting the creation of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan in 1997.

Focused on protecting the wildlife native to Arizona and allowing for the development of homes and other spaces, the plan installed an incidental permit.

“Because Pima County already has that conservation plan, some development covered by that permit will be allowed and won’t have to go through additional regulation or review,” said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

While hundreds of thousands of acres are protected areas for the pygmy owl, not all of Southern Arizona falls under the county’s jurisdiction.

The proposed interstate 11 project, which would connect Nogales to Las Vegas through Tucson’s northwest side, falls out of the county’s control. Cutting through Avra Valley, the interstate poses a large risk to the pygmy owl.

“It’ll fragment habitat for pygmy owls and other species, as well as degrade the quality of those special places that Arizonans universally love,” Greenwald said.

Under the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, there are already rules for animal surveys and monitoring, as well as procedures allowed under the incidental permit.

Because the interstate falls under federal authority, a separate review by the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service will need to be conducted to ensure that construction will not harm the owl and other threatened and protected species.

“In many ways, the pygmy owl is an indicator and symbol of the Sonoran Desert itself. We lose the pygmy owl; we lose the Sonoran Desert at some level.”

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