Experts estimate that fewer than 50 cactus ferruginous pygmy owls are left in the borderlands of the southwestern United States.
But that didn’t stop the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from denying them protections under the Endangered Species Act on Wednesday, because bigger populations, officials say, can be found in Mexico.
Defenders petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 to look into the pygmy’s plight as habitat loss, invasive species and prolonged drought—threats that still exist today—exacted a heavy toll on the population, particularly in southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico.
The decision comes as shockingly disappointing news. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is essentially saying that it’s OK to let these rare birds go extinct in the United States,” Defenders President Jamie Rappaport Clark says.
She points out that the bald eagle, gray wolf, grizzly bear and jaguar would never have received protection under the Endangered Species Act using this interpretation of the law.
“The ESA represents our core values of good stewardship and America’s commitment to conserving our natural resources for future generations,” she says. “Today, that commitment took a serious hit as we turned our backs on a declining species in this country simply because it exists elsewhere.”
Defenders’ Southwest representative Matt Clark says, “This listing decision not only denies this declining species crucial legal protections, it also shortchanges the owl of the administrative resources needed for research, restoration and recovery efforts on U.S. soil.”
The pint-sized pygmy is one tough bird that’s able to take down prey twice its size. But without the Endangered Species Act protections they deserve, these rare raptors may not be hardy enough to hold on in the U.S.