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  • Writer's pictureMark L. Johnson

Pygmy-Owl Update

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

One of Tortolita Alliance (TA) goals for 2020 is to determine the endangered species listing status for the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl and other species in the Tortolita region.

Accordingly, TA met with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) via teleconference on 3/20/20 to get an update.



The Arizona Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl (pygmy-owl) was listed as an endangered species in 1997 and 732,000 acres of Arizona critical habitat was designated in 1999.

This required the Developer of the Resort Hotel (aka Ritz Carlton) to conduct a Section 7 consultation with FWS to determine impacts to the pygmy-owl and its habitat. The resulting Biological Opinion (10/23/2000) required 2,400 acres of mitigation land to compensate for the disturbance of pygmy-owl critical habitat.

As previously reported, this resulted in the establishment of the 2,400 acre Tortolita Preserve (TP) and the associated 99-year lease (TP Lease) with the Arizona State Land Department (ASLD). The TP Lease was assigned to the Town of Marana (Marana) on 10/18/2001.


The pygmy-owl is very small (6.75" long) and can fit in your hand. Generally it is reddish-brown and calls diurnally with a series of short notes.

Biologists determined that there are two ferruginous pygmy-owl species; (1) Glaucidium (G.) brasilianum in South America and (2) G. ridgwayi in North and Central America.

In North America there are two subspecies; (1) G. ridgwayi cactorum in Arizona and Sonora & Sinaloa Mexico and (2) G. ridgwayi in Texas, eastern-central-southern Mexico and Central America. The G. ridgwayi cactorum subspecies is further broken down to Sonoran Population. See map to the right.

Pygmy-owl Litigation

This little bird has caused a lot of legal entanglements! Environmental organizations have taken legal action to get the pygmy-owl listed as a threatened or endangered species and home builder organizations have taken legal action to get the pygmy-owl de-listed. It all started in 1992 and continues to this day. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has a great pygmy-owl website page with a complete timeline and documents---many of which were used here. The following presents the key litigation events.

  • 1/9/2001-National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) v Norton (aka FWS)-lawsuit challenges FWS designation of pygmy-owl as Designated Population Segment (DPS) and its critical habitat designation.

  • 11/27/2002-FWS-proposes new critical habitat as a result of lawsuit.

  • 8/19/2003-NHAB v Norton-US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Ninth Circuit) Opinion states ‘‘the FWS acted arbitrarily and capriciously in designating the Arizona pygmy-owl population as a DPS under the DPS Policy’’.

  • 5/15/2006-FWS-pygmy-owl is de-listed as a result of Ninth Circuit decision.

  • 3/15/2007-Center For Biological Diversity (CBD) & Defenders of Wildlife (DW) Petition-petition calls for FWS to list the Arizona DPS, Sonoran Desert DPS or the western subspecies G. ridgwayii cactorum as threatened or endangered species.

  • 10/5/2011-FWS-final determination declining to list the pygmy-owl in any configuration. FWS determined that the pygmy-owl was endangered in the Sonoran Desert but losing the sub-species in this portion of the species entire range would not place the species at risk of extinction, i.e. the Sonoran Desert portion of the species range was not a significant portion of the species' range.

  • 8/20/12-CBD & DW v Salazar (aka FWS)-complaint challenges FWS's new definition of "significant portion of the range" which inappropriately resulted in not listing the pygmy-owl in any portion of its range.

  • 11/14/19-CBD & DW v Berhardt (aka FWS)-stipulated agreement requires FWS to publish 12-month finding as to whether the pygmy-owl should be listed as threatened or endangered with deadline of 8/5/2021.

FWS is currently conducting pygmy-owl surveys throughout its range to develop more data on the "significant portion of the range" issue and prepare the 12-month finding in compliance with the court order.

Pygmy-owls were observed in the Tucson region last week as part of this comprehensive survey. Pygmy-owl surveys will be conducted in the Tortolita Preserve, Tortolita Mountains and other areas in Arizona and Mexico in coming weeks.

Other Potential Listings

Another species that might be listed in the Tortolita region is the Sonoran Desert Tortoise. On 9/5/2019, the WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project filed a complaint against FWS claiming that a 2015 decision to not list the Sonoran Desert Tortoise was flawed in several ways including the "significant portion of range" issue. This complaint may result in more studies and surveys and perhaps a 12-month finding.


Please note the TP Lease is not subject to the pygmy-owl obtaining endangered species status but we have 2,400 acres of beautiful habitat available if it does get listed!

TA will keep tabs on the pygmy-owl and Sonoran Desert Tortoise endangered species status and keep everyone informed.


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