Nov. 3, 2004 - With substantial growth on the horizon in Marana, the town has taken steps to balance wildlife preservation with development by creating a habitat conservation plan. A draft of the plan was adopted at an Oct. 19 council meeting.

Representatives from several groups, including Arizona Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, attended the meeting in support of Marana's efforts in species preservation.

"I think there are some really good, creative concepts in this draft plan," said Carolyn Campbell, the executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, during the Oct. 19 meeting. "Marana will be a model for other communities around the country," she said.

Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must approve the draft before the HCP can be enacted. The HCP would affect developments throughout the town and preserve open-space in the habitat of species at risk of becoming endangered.

Scott Richardson, USFWS Biologist, said the plan is still far from reality because the approval process can take significant time. Marana's HCP has several "unique and innovative" ideas that will require thorough examination before the Wildlife Service can approve the plan, he said. However, he added that Marana has shown a willingness to work with USFWS in the past and would likely continue to do so in the future.

At the forefront of the plan is the protection of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. Earlier this year, the small bird's endangered status was in legal limbo. On June 28, a federal judge ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service had until Jan. 31 to determine if the owl's listing as an endangered species is scientifically valid.

For now, it will remain on the endangered species list, and to avoid any future entanglements, Marana will continue to treat it as such, said Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat.

Marana's HCP also protects habitat, primarily along the Santa Cruz River, for the burrowing owl, the Tucson shovel-nosed snake, the ground snake, the lesser long-nosed bat and the pale Townsend's big-eared bat. Of those species, only the pygmy owl and the pale Townsend's big-eared bat are endangered.

The burrowing owl is federally endangered in Canada and may become so in the United States. All of the species on Marana's HCP are at risk of becoming endangered, said Leslie Liberti, the HCP project manager.

"Rather than worry about just the species that are currently listed, the idea is to look into the future and see what might become listed," Liberti said.

According to the plan, only three male pygmy owls live in Marana, and the HCP has two strategies to protect their habitat. The first strategy deals with protecting the owl on a development-by-development basis, which would restrict land use on pygmy owl habitat and require off-site mitigation. The second strategy, which both Liberti and Reuwsaat indicated as the preferential solution for the town, required expanding the existing Tortolita Preserve from 2,400 to 18,000 acres and using that as mitigation habitat for future developments in the town.

Developers could then build in the area south of the preserve using up to 60 percent of the property. Under the current situation, developments in pygmy owl habitat only can use 20 percent of the property.

Liberti said the strategy involving the expansion of the Tortolita Preserve benefits the pygmy owl because it provides contiguous open space and benefits Marana because the town wouldn't have to ensure each development adequately protects the owl separately. However, the expansion is dependent upon the town's acquisition of state trust land, which is dependent on major reforms at the state level.

If that doesn't happen, the town may be forced to pursue the first strategy, Reuwsaat said.

Another main component of Marana's HCP involves protecting the habitat of the burrowing owl, which includes more than 2,000 acres along the Santa Cruz River. The plan also calls for the use of artificial burrows in three non-contiguous 20-acre areas.

In an Oct. 5 study session, Liberti told the council the strategies outlined to protect the pygmy and burrowing owls would cover the habitat of the lesser long-nosed and the pale Townsend's bat. The ground snake also shares similar habitat to that of the pygmy and burrowing owls, Liberti said.

Liberti said the town has been very forward thinking in its consideration of wildlife preservation within Marana, and the draft HCP was a reflection of those efforts.

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