More endangered species could soon be added to list in Pima County

More endangered species could soon be added to list in Pima County

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Nearly 20 years ago, Pima County was in a big battle with developers over the tiny pygmy owl.

It had been listed on the endangered species list and the community was at a loss of what to do.

Federal rules were unclear and much was left to interpretation.

Thousands of acres of developable land was taken off the market and set aside to protect the owl.

Homeowners were not sure they could sell their homes if it sat on sensitive habitat.

Property owners didn't know if they had to follow special rules or in many case, what the rules were.

And developers lost the ability to build homes on a lot of property in what, at that time. was a hot housing market.

Now, in a couple of weeks, the county will find out if those times may be coming again or if those years and the controversy have been put to rest.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to notify Pima County about its intent to issue a Multi-Species Section 10 Permit by the end of February or beginning of March.

The county applied for the permit in 2012, but it was proposed by citizen's committee in 2004.

"It can take a long time," said Julia Fonseca, an environmental planner for Pima County.

If the permit is approved, it will allow the county to make rules when it comes to endangered species, cutting off a long and expensive federal process.

"It will streamline the process," Fonseca said. "The idea is to operate under an agreed to set of rules."

It means even if a species is not listed as endangered now, if it does get added to the list, there is no change in the ground rules when it does.

"The pygmy owl is a great example of the confusion when a species is listed," Fonseca said.

The permit will give the county more say.

"It will eliminate a lot of that confusion," she said. "That's recognition that what the community signed up for many years ago under the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is recognized as a means of addressing endangered species issues."

When the pygmy owl was added to the endangered list in 1997, there were more questions than answers, which led to a great deal of confusion.

Much of that was settled only with years-long litigation and a lot of bitterness.

The county hopes to avoid that in the future because there are more species to come.

County officials believe it will be prudent if there's a set of rules and guidelines which can be followed locally, rather than trying to keep up with the shifting demands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department.

Right now there are nine listed species in Pima County and another 44 that could be added.

The potential problems, without the permit, are enormous.

"The devil's in the details," said David Godlewski, president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.  "Anytime you introduce a permit and a plan of this magnitude, it may reignite some old feelings.

He said he's "optimistic" it won't, but the potential is there.

"The big unknown is if there's something in the final permit that's really objectionable or causes a lot of heartburn," he said.

Things have changed since the first wars over the owl and one of those is the housing recession, which still lingers.

The industry is slowly crawling back but there is some concern what the permit could do.

"That's a big question," Godlewski said. "When you introduce a federal permit like this, how it might impact the recovery of the housing market."

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