June 13, 2005

Arizona Officials May Import Endangered Owls

PHOENIX -- Wildlife officials are considering importing endangered owls from Mexico to boost the dwindling population in Arizona. To protect endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owls, development already has been slowed or altered on thousands of acres of old-growth, ironwood-saguaro forest.

But with less than 20 birds remaining in Arizona, the species needs more assistance because the numbers continue dropping, wildlife officials say.

The pygmy owls - already threatened by urban sprawl, logging and livestock overgrazing - are now more susceptible to predators due to the drought.

They have less chance of finding nutrients from lizards and mice, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jeff Humphrey said. The plants that harbored the reptiles and rodents have shriveled up.

"The owls don't have a place to hide and stand out like sore thumbs. They are vulnerable to predation by other raptors," Humphrey said.

The reddish-brown owls with cream-colored bellies weigh less than 3 ounces and nest in the cavities of trees and cactuses. They were listed as federally endangered in 1997.

Bringing them up from Mexico may not solve the problem since the desert is still hurting from many unusually dry years, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Richardson, who works with the owls.

"To compensate for the drought is not as simple as putting out a water trough or dumping a bunch of mice out there," Richardson said. "It is a tough species to deal with ... because they are not directly dependent on water, which you could provide."

There are also concerns that plans to import the birds could be hampered due the plummeting number of pygmy owls in northern Mexico.

Wildlife officials are looking at other ways to help the owls. Since some of the saguaros they nest in have been drying up, they are looking at possibly building wooden boxes for them to nest.

"The loss of even a single saguaro is significant because there are so few. You count saguaros in some parts of the state in dozens," Richardson said.