Citizen Staff Writer
Pima County is moving forward with a stalled key aspect of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan now that the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl is again an endangered species list candidate.
By December, the county plans to apply for a federal permit that would allow – with detailed restrictions and monitoring – harming, killing or harassing of listed species in the course of legal endeavors, such as development.
The county delayed the bid for a permit under Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act in 2006 after the pygmy owl was removed from the list.
“Since we didn’t need a permit, we held it. Eventually we will need a permit,” said Maeveen Behan, deputy director of Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation.
The endangered species list includes 19 plants and animals found in Pima County. Decisions are expected next year on whether to list the pygmy owl and the Tucson shovel-nosed snake. Other proposed listings include the Sonoyta mud turtle and acuna cactus.
In a memo to county supervisors last week, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry cited the high potential for endangered species listings as a reason for renewing the permit effort.
“It is reasonable to anticipate that wildlife species will continue to be listed. . . . As long as growth continues in Pima County there will be a need for a Section 10 permit,” Huckelberry wrote.
The permit application is among the final pieces of the sweeping conservation plan aimed at managing growth while protecting the environment. The county began the effort in 1999 and has been making zoning and other land-use decisions since 2001 as if the permit were already in place.
Approval under Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act would solidify the relationship between federal regulations and the local Multi-Species Conservation Plan, the part of the Sonoran Desert plan that protects more species than federal law, Behan said.
Lots of wildlife
The number of at-risk species in Pima County depends in part on whose list you read.
While the federal endangered species list covers 19 local plants and animals, the county Multi-species Conservation Plan would protect 36.
The state’s Arizona Natural Heritage Program database includes 312 “species of concern” in Pima County, and NatureServe, a nonprofit organization that tracks rare and threatened species, lists 7,743 in Arizona.
Kierán Suckling, executive director and co-founder of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, has been building an endangered species database for a decade.
Suckling’s data cover about 70,000 species across the U.S., including what he called the nation’s most comprehensive list of extinct species. It includes the extinct Santa Cruz pupfish, which scientists tried unsuccessfully to keep in captivity, and a small Arizona mammal last seen in 1932 that was hunted out of existence by domestic cats.
The database grows daily as new studies or legal or regulatory decisions are released, Suckling said.
“There’s no end to the need for more information and the availability of more,” he said.
Suckling has allowed free access to his data for scientists, scholars, the media and government officials.
“Increasingly and quite ironically I get calls from federal agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, who wants to know what’s happening with these species because surprisingly the agencies don’t track this information at this level,” Suckling said.
He is in early talks with Google about putting the data on the Internet in some sort of wiki format with controls to limit changes or additions, he said.
“We’re trying to figure out how to go public,” Suckling said.
The Arizona Natural Heritage Program database is not available to the public, though the state Game & Fish Department has some information from it available for download. More specific reports are available on request.
Local species in the state database include the familiar Chiricahua leopard frog and Gila chub and less familiar black-bellied whistling duck and San Pedro River wild buckwheat.
Suckling, whose 1998 threat of a pygmy owl lawsuit was an early spark in the county plan’s development, is encouraged by the nearly complete Section 10 permit application. The proactive protections are likely to head off lawsuits, he said.
It could be argued that the first impact of the county plan was to prevent just such a lawsuit over pygmy owls. In 1998, the Center for Biological Diversity threatened to sue the county and Amphitheater Public Schools because of construction in owl habitat.
Amphitheater did not respond to the threat, and Suckling sued to block construction of Ironwood Ridge High School. Huckelberry invited Suckling to a meeting, and the threat of a suit against the county was withdrawn, Suckling said.
From the beginning, environmentalists had a seat at the planning table, which Behan agreed has been a key to the plan’s success thus far.
Though Arizona does less than coastal states such as California and Oregon to protect wildlife, Pima County is ahead of the curve, Suckling said.
The Section 10 permit would cover the 608,000 acres under the county’s land-use regulatory authority. It would allow development in sensitive areas if other areas are preserved to offset the “taking” of endangered species.
“It doesn’t mean there won’t be development,” Behan said.
The Fish & Wildlife Service, which would issue the permit, has served as a technical adviser during the past decade so the county wouldn’t waste time on a failing effort, said Sherry Bennett, Fish & Wildlife’s assistant field supervisor for southern Arizona.
“In the end we become the regulator, though, because we are the ones who analyze fully the application package, and we are the ones that issue the permit for take of listed species,” Barrett said.
After the county submits the application, the public will have 90 days to comment. Fish & Wildlife decisions normally come about a year after application, she said.
Though the plan is nearing completion, species, habitat and ecosystem monitoring will be ongoing. Despite more than 250 studies informing the county plan, more work remains.
The more we know about threatened species, the more work we create for scientists, environmentalists and governments alike, Suckling said.
“It’s like Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Once you know, you’re responsible,” he said.
The full impact of the county plan might never be known, said Bob Steidl, a University of Arizona wildlife and fisheries associate professor who serves on the county’s Science Technical Advisory Team.
“One of the things we can’t quantify is what isn’t listed because we have this,” he said.
Pima County species protected by federal law
• California brown pelican (endangered, being monitored for possible delisting) The Pacific coastal bird sometimes wanders into Arizona from Mexico or California. The species is found on Arizona lakes and rivers at various elevations.
• Chiricahua leopard frog (threatened) This denizen of streams, rivers, ponds and livestock watering tanks requires a nearly permanent water source.
• Desert pupfish (endangered) The 2-inch fish lives is springs, streams and marshes below 5,000 feet
• Gila chub (endangered) Lives in pools, cienegas, streams and springs from 2,000-5,500 feet.
• Gila topminnow (endangered) The 2-inch, live-bearing fish used to live in river backwaters, but is now limited to small streams and springs below 4,500 feet
• Huachuca water umbel (endangered) This semi-aquatic member of the parsley family lives in cienegas, wetlands and streams from 3,500-6,500 feet.
• Jaguar (endangered) This big cat lives primarily in Mexico but sometimes wanders into Pima County. The Department of Interior decided in January not to craft a recovery plan because the cat lives mainly in Mexico. It can live anywhere from desert scrub at 1,600 feet elevation to 9,000 feet.
• Kearney’s blue star (endangered) This 2-foot perennial member of the dogbane family lives in west-facing washes in the Baboquivari Mountains from 3,600-3,800 feet.
• Lesser long-nosed bat (endangered) This migratory species lives mainly in Mexico but comes into Pima County from April-September. The bats roost in caves and abandoned tunnels below 6,000 feet during the day.
• Masked bobwhite (endangered) This denizen of desert grassland from 1,000-4,000 feet used to be seen the Altar and Santa Cruz valleys, but is now known only from reintroduced populations in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.
• Mexican spotted owl (threatened) The habitat for this forest dweller stretches from 4,100-9,000 feet in every Arizona county except La Paz and Yuma.
• Nichol Turk’s head cactus (endangered) This 18-inch cactus lives in desert scrub at the foot of limestone mountains between 2,400-4,100 feet in Pima and Pinal counties.
• Ocelot (endangered) This yellowish cat with lengthwise black stripes lives below 8,000 feet in dense cover in partially cleared forests and former farmland that has reverted to brush. Unconfirmed sightings across southern Arizona persist.
• Pima pineapple cactus (endangered) This 6-inch cactus is easily confused with immature barrel cactuses. It lives in desert scrub from 2,300-5,000 feet
• Sonoran pronghorn (endangered) This 3-foot-tall antelope lives in creosote and paloverde brush below 2,000 feet in Mexico and Pima and Yuma counties.
• Yellow-billed cuckoo (candidate) This native of the entire western U.S. lives in dense cottonwood stands along rivers.
• Southwestern willow flycatcher (endangered) This 6-inch birds lives in cottonwood or willow and tamarisk vegetation along rivers and streams below 8,500 feet.
• Acuna cactus (candidate) This foot-tall cactus lives in dry knolls and gravel ridges in Sonoran Desert scrub from 1,300-2,000 feet.
• Sonoyta mud turtle (candidate) This aquatic turtle lives only in Quitobaquito Spring in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Rio Sonoyta in Mexico.
Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Species protected by Pima County plan
Species that would be covered by the Pima County Section 10 permit under the Endangered Species Act:
Pima pineapple cactus
Needle-spined pineapple cactus
Huachuca water umbel
Mexican long-tongued bat
Allen’s big-eared bat
Southern yellow bat
Western red bat
Lesser long-nosed bat
California leaf-nosed bat
Pale Townsend’s big-eared bat
Cactus-ferruginous pygmy owl
Western yellow-billed cuckoo
Southwestern willow flycatcher
Chiricahua leopard frog
Lowland leopard frog
Desert box turtle
Sonoran desert tortoise
Tucson shovel-nosed snake
Mexican garter snake
Giant spotted whiptail
Ground snake (valley form)
Arkenstone Cave pseudoscorpion
Source: Pima County