The tiny, fierce pygmy owl has become synonymous with wild Sonoran Desert: Endangered Species Act protections for the owl initiated a new era of urban planning in southern Arizona. Within the bird's critical habitat areas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service limited development to just 20 percent of most properties, driving the large-scale Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan that became a model for endangered species urban planning nationwide.

The Center first petitioned to protect the owl in 1992, and following three successful lawsuits secured an endangered listing in 1997. We won the owl 732,000 acres of critical habitat in 1999. But developers fought back in 2001, with the tacit support of the Bush administration, and their lawsuit seeking to remove the pygmy owl's endangered status overturned the bird's listing in 2006. The argument was that pygmy owls exist in Mexico and thus can be allowed to go extinct in the United States (though the Service's own biologists opposed the owl's delisting).

In 2007 the Center filed a new petition to list the owl — in southern Arizona, throughout the Sonoran Desert, or throughout its range. We filed a notice of intent to sue in May 2008, and were rewarded a week later when the agency said protection might be warranted and began a status review. In 2009 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an appeal upholding the bird's delisting, but in 2011, we reached a landmark agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service compelling the agency to re-propose it for protection that same year, if warranted.When no progress was made according to the agreement's timeline, we sued in 2012, continuing to fund pygmy owl research in Mexico while working with Pima County on the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

In 2019 the little owl got a new chance for protection. Through a lawsuit we filed with allies, we won a court-enforceable deadline — Aug. 5, 2021 — for the Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether the pygmy owl should again be protected as an endangered species.

Photo by Robin Silver