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Build a house, kill an owl

Dan Post
By Dan Post
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, September 30, 2005
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In the last eight years, the endangered status of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl has been a constant source of debate between the government, environmental groups and development interests. The pygmy owl was listed as an endangered species in 1997, and since then, a fight has raged on over the legality of this listing under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The fight came to a boiling point as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in charge of administering the ESA, recently announced it would support the arguments of the National Association of Home Builders and "delist" the pygmy owl, upsetting local conservationists.

Why did the government decide to delist the species?

David F. Wilson, president of NAHB said, "The delisting of the pygmy owl is based on sound science, not political whim."

However, Jenny Neely, a local representative for the Defenders of Wildlife organization, called the decision to delist "purely political" and said it is not based on science at all.

The ESA provides specific definitions for the meaning of the word "species." According to the ESA, for any species' population to be protected under law, it must be a discrete population, and it must also be biologically significant to the overall population.

The Arizona population of the pygmy owl is definitely discrete; the government acknowledges that the boundary between Mexico and the U.S. is adequate in making the population a discrete unit.

However, a political boundary does not offer special biological considerations to the viability of the species. The Arizona population is politically distinct from the Mexico population, but is this section biologically significant to the species as a whole?

The scientific data on pygmy owls, summarized in a government-issued "white paper" released in December 2003, gives all the necessary clues.

The white paper argues that Arizona cactus ferruginous pygmy owl populations are ecologically unique from other pygmy owls because their habitat is the desert. But the ecosystem of the Arizona pygmy owl is not really unique to Arizona; there is nothing particularly special about the Arizona habitat that is different from the Mexico habitat, except for the political boundary separating the two places.

However, the key point lies in the genetic diversity within the Arizona pygmy owl population. The Arizona pygmy owl population represents the northernmost range of the desert species, a peripheral population considered by scientists to contain a significant amount of genetic variation.

The white paper states, "This genetic divergence allows adaptation of the species as a whole in the face of environmental change. Loss of genetic diversity translates into a loss of fitness (reproductive success) for the species. " The genetic variability found in the Arizona pygmy owl population is essential in the maintenance of the species' fitness as a whole.

Thus, the Arizona pygmy owl population satisfies the government's own definition of species. Only 20 pygmy owls remain; the endangered population is both discrete and biologically significant to the whole. Legally, it should be listed for protection under the ESA.

The Bush administration has shown in the past that it is willing to ignore science and even the law to hand out major environmental concessions for its biggest supporters.

The list of Bush's environmental concessions for his business friends can go forever. For instance, Bush supports the interests of oil companies over global warming concerns, reduces pollution regulation in the interests of big industry, and provides forestry concessions to big logging companies in the name of "healthy forests," just to name a few.

The case of the pygmy owl is no different. The companies represented by NAHB stand to make huge profits from building 262 houses per year on the pygmy owl's protected habitat (taken from their own estimates).

It is also of note that the NAHB is the single largest campaign contributor of any organization in the country, and 66 percent of their donations go to the Republican Party. Wilson personally gave Bush a $2,000 campaign contribution.

So, once again, Bush and the decision makers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have ignored science and given their biggest donors a huge break.

Dan Post is a senior majoring in ecology and anthropology. He can be reached at

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