Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Owl habitat could double as result of ruling

Citizen Staff Writer

By BLAKE MORLOCK

Citizen Staff Writer

Critical habitat for the pygmy owl could double to about 1.4 million acres as result of a judge’s ruling that apparently backfired on developers.

The endangered bird’s 731,000-acre protected area established in 1999 was temporarily eliminated by a federal judge in September.

The judge, siding with developers, ruled the U.S. Forest Service did not adequately study the financial effects of critical habitat when it was first established. The habitat was rescinded, pending a new economic impact study.

In an agreement with two environmental groups, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service accepted a 16-month deadline to re-establish owl habitat by early 2003.

“It’s coming back and it will be bigger when it does, because the science has improved,” said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

By law, critical habitat is established based on the “best available science” and, to some extent, economics, said Fish & Wildlife spokesman Jeff Humphreys.

Scientists working for the service released a report in April that identified 724,000 acres beyond critical habitat established in 1999 as “essential to the survival and recovery” of the pygmy owl.

Fish & Wildlife officials will have the final say about how big critical habitat will be when boundaries are redrawn.

They refuse to speculate on what habitat will look like.

But the science done for this recovery plan will provide the bulk of the biology for the new habitat, Humphreys acknowledged.

Environmentalists are confident that means the protected habitat will come back much bigger than what was struck down.

“The developers have really shot themselves in the foot,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the two groups reaching agreement with Fish & Wildlife.

“I don’t think they are going to be happy with what comes out,” he said of developers.

But developers are confident when it’s all said and done, they’ll be able to claim victory.

In fact, they’re counting on Fish & Wildlife’s new economic impact analysis to actually reduce the size of critical habitat.

“I can assure you that if there is a true look at what the economics are, there will be areas that were in critical habitat that will be taken out,” said Terry Klinger, president of Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.

Construction projects within critical habitat face extra hurdles for approval if they require any sort of federal permit or are on federal land.

Much of Tucson’s booming Northwest Side is within critical habitat, and construction there often requires federal flood-control permits because so much of that area is crisscrossed by washes.

Klinger said new critical habitat won’t be based on “an overzealous interpretation of science,” since the Bush Administration stresses economics in the endangered species equation.

“Right now, it’s an open book,” Klinger said. “You are really starting from Point A and all elements of owl habitat will be revisited.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is thinking along those same lines, paying for its own economic analysis.

The study is expected to show how critical habitat can improve property values, curb costly sprawl and improve the economy, Suckling said.

MAP: Recovery areas and designated critical habitat

Source: Tucson Citizen

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