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Federal agency proposes protections for small owls that live in South Texas

Brian Henderson via Flickr
The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl is a reddish-brown, nonmigratory bird. It was initially designated as endangered in Arizona in 1997 but lost its protected status in 2006 after business developers successfully sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife over the protections.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is pushing to restore some environmental protections for a tiny owl native to South Texas, Arizona and Mexico. The agency on Wednesday proposed listing the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The reddish-brown, nonmigratory bird was designated endangered in Arizona in 1997, but lost its protected status in 2006 after business developers successfully sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife over the protections. Since then, agriculture and urbanization along the U.S.-Mexico border have led to a further decline in the pygmy owl subspecies populations of Arizona and South Texas, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

"There's been a lot of development at the border which has further fragmented populations between Texas and Mexico and resulted in additional habitat loss," said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center, which petitioned the federal agency for years for more protections.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimates the entire pygmy owl population in Texas has fallen below a thousand and is mostly isolated from larger populations in northeastern Mexico.

The pygmy owls are also threatened by droughts driven by climate change, said Greenwald, adding that they are among countless species dying off at an accelerated rate around the globe.

“We’re at risk of losing a million species in the coming decades,” he said. “The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl is part of that. Through habitat destruction and, increasingly, climate change, we’re fundamentally changing the world we live in, to the detriment of beautiful and interesting species like the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl,” said Greenwald.

Before enacting new environmental protections, U.S. Fish and Wildlife must gather more data and determine specific areas to designate as critical habitat for the owls. In Texas, that could include parts of Kleberg, Kenedy, Willacy, Cameron, Hidalgo, Brooks, Jim Wells, Duval, Jim Hogg, Starr, Zapata, and Webb Counties.

A public comment period for the proposal is open until Feb. 22, 2022. An informational meeting and public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 25, 2022.

Joseph Leahy anchors morning newscasts for NPR's statewide public radio collaborative, The Texas Newsroom. He began his career in broadcast journalism as a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio in 2011. The following year, he helped launch Delaware's first NPR station, WDDE, as an afternoon newscaster and host. Leahy returned to St. Louis in 2013 to anchor local newscasts during All Things Considered and produce news on local and regional issues. In 2016, he took on a similar role as the local Morning Edition newscaster at KUT in Austin, before moving over to the Texas Newsroom.