Marana may drastically increase the size of the Tortolita Preserve, a 2,400-acre desert park near the Dove Mountain development, and may reintroduce the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl there. However, the town must overcome many obstacles before the plan comes to fruition.

Only three male pygmy owls have been found in the Northwest, Scott Richardson, a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS), said. In past years there have been as many as 12 to 18 owls, including several nesting pairs.

Through the past year the endangered status of the bird has been in legal limbo, making development in Marana east of Interstate 10 a complex issue.

For now, the bird will remain protected. On June 28, a federal judge ruled the FWS has until Jan. 31 to establish if the owl's listing as an endangered species is scientifically valid.

As a result, Marana officials may decide to conserve large amounts of open space for the bird, Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said. The proposed Tortolita Preserve Expansion suggests increasing the current preserve to 18,000 acres.

The town would then have continuous open space for the pygmy owl and certainty developers can move forward with their projects. Right now developers must go through an expensive, time-consuming process to ensure their projects comply with the law, Reuwsaat said.

"The whole concept is, instead of fighting these little battles - the Willow Ridges, the Hartman Hills, the Sky Ranches and all of these on a piecemeal basis, where you still don't have connectivity and guarantee that in the long run it's going to work - let's establish a large preserve and use that as an area to augment or reestablish the owl population that is soon to be gone," he said.

Before that can happen, the town must get state approval for the Bajada Environmental Resource Overlay to rezone the Tortolita state trust land. Currently, the zoning allows for one home per 25 acres, the expansion suggests this land receive the most restrictive zoning designation.

At present, the FWS restrictions on properties in pygmy owl habitat only allow development on about 20 percent of a property, with the remaining 80 percent considered offset for the 20 percent developed. Developers also can purchase other qualifying habitat land to offset the development, usually at the same 4 to 1 ratio, meaning 400 acres of qualifying habitat offset land is needed to develop 100 acres.

However, that is a complicated process and requires a public agency to manage the offset acreage.

The 2,400-acre Tortolita Preserve is an example. It was created in 2001 as an offset for Dove Mountain, a 6,000-acre master planned development on the southern foothills of the Tortolita Mountains and in the heart of pygmy owl habitat.

The project's developer, Cottonwood Prop-erties, needed the offset land to complete the project, namely by building a resort and a third golf course. The builder provided the money for Marana to purchase and maintain the preserve, which is north of Tangerine Road and south of Dove Moun-tain. The proposed preserve expansion would completely envelop Dove Mountain.

Rather than have builders go through the current process to develop their property, the proposed Tortolita Preserve would provide the necessary offset land.

In exchange, developers could build in the area south of the preserve using up to 60 percent of the property. Developers who use less than 30 percent of the land would not be required to pay mitigation fees. Higher percentage usage would require fee increases at a rate that has not yet been determined, Reuswatt said.

Once the preserve is established the next step is the reintroduction of the pygmy owl.

Richardson mentioned three possible methods for reestablishing the owl population in Marana. The first involved relocating pygmy owls from Mexico, the second relied on captive breeding and the third consisted of moving young owls preserved in Arizona to breeding areas such as the suggested Tortolita preserve.

In Marana's case, the Arizona Fish and Game Department will assist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with augmenting and maintaining the owl population, Richardson said. He emphasized any method requires further study before the plan can go forward.

"This is not a done deal," Richardson said. "It's a concept that's out there and being considered but work must be done and a lot of details have to be worked out to see if it's going to be feasible."

Marana also faces challenges in acquiring the necessary land to implement the Tortolita Preserve Expansion Plan. While the idea has many benefits, several agencies must cooperate to make it possible.

"We think it provides an overall solution for just about everybody," Reuwsaat said. "Now, the devil's going to be in the details of course."

For example, much of the area affected by the plan both inside and outside the preserve is currently state trust land. The legislature was expected to propose major reforms to the complicated body of laws that govern the disposition of state lands to include setting aside hundreds of thousands of acres for preservation. However, that effort has been postponed until later this year, meaning reform lands may not be available until next year.

With state land reform, several thousand acres of trust land within the preserve would become open space. Marana would then seek approval from the state to use trust land outside the preserve for development.

If state land reform does not go through, Marana would have to turn to other methods, such as land exchange or auction, to acquire the land, Reuwsaat said. Currently, Marana is investigating many avenues to go forward with the plan.

He added the town needs another two years to complete its Habitat Conservation Plan before the Tortolita Preserve can expand.

Carolyn Campbell, the executive director for the Coalition For Sonoran Desert Protection and a member of Marana's Habitat Conservation Plan drafting committee, said the conservation community has its own concerns about the project, such as what would happen to owls that enter Pinal County, which is under a different jurisdiction.

"I think it's really a great concept," Campbell said. "But I think it needs to be fleshed out more before the conservation community would feel really comfortable with it."

One concern is, if pygmy owls do thrive in the preserve, what would occur if an owl left the preserve and ended up in a nearby development.

In Pima County, if the development is in compliance with Marana's Habitat Conservation Plan, the pygmy owls' presence would have no consequences, Richardson said.

Before considering the effects of an increased population of pygmy owls, several agencies, including Marana, Pima County and the Bureau of Land Management, must find a way to make the plan viable.

"This is an issue that's bigger than just Marana." Reuwsaat said.

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