Owl See You in Court

Page 9 of 9

Regional forester Cartwright flew in from Forest Service headquarters in Albuquerque. No one questioned the rather unusual location--Muecke's courtroom is in Phoenix--or the insistence that the media be excluded.

"When a federal judge tells federal agencies to go, we go," says Pat Jackson, a Forest Service spokesman who accompanied Cartwright to Flagstaff but did not attend the hearing in the judge's quarters. "When he gives instructions, we do them."

The judge, however, did not agree that the Forest Service follows his instructions. He asked Cartwright how a defendant in a lawsuit could decide for himself that the lawsuit was over and that he had won. But the judge did not follow through on his threats of finding the Forest Service in contempt.

He ordered both sides to present final briefs on August 7.
The Forest Service stands firm.
"This owl is not in jeopardy, nor has it ever been," says Jackson.

In the truck on the way to explore a riparian area outside Tucson that is threatened by development, Kieran waxes philosophical about why owls have become a symbol for both sides in the environmental wars.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that it's an owl," he says. "Not just in Native American cultures, but in other cultures as well, the owl has been an omen of death. In this case it's the death of an ecosystem."

He goes on to explain that spotted owls use desert riparian areas as way stations from one mountain range to another. They have been seen near Tucson, he says, and once upon a time, when the Salt River had a riparian area, they were sighted in Tempe.

Kieran meets with a pair of local citizens who have been campaigning against the impending development of this riparian area, which is at the bottom of a canyon. Kieran knows that there is at least one cactus ferruginous pygmy owl living somewhere in the canyon. The Southwest Center filed the petition to list the species as threatened, and its presence could help the local fight against the development.

The pygmy owl is no bigger than a beer can, but it's a ferocious predator and can kill mammals larger than itself.

"Not much is known about those guys because they're very secretive," Kieran says. "They're not migratory. They'll stay at a site all year long."

The canyon is a lovely, winding slot filled with willow trees. Because of the spring drought, it is uncharacteristically dry; biologists argue whether it has a perennial or an intermittent stream, but regardless, it is green and cool.

A mile into it, there is a high monolithic brown rock carved with Native American petroglyphs that date to the Hohokam civilization. To the right are the usual gouged spirals.

Kieran's face lights up. Carved into the side of the rock face, left by some prehistoric artist as a reminder of the creatures that once lived there, is an ancient and larger-than-life rendering of an owl.

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Michael Kiefer