Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
A tiny owl that lives in the South Texas brush has received protected status from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is also proposing that two species of mussels found in the Rio Grande be added to the endangered species list.
The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl, a 6-inch-tall raptor, was classified late last week as a threatened species by the agency, which means the species will likely become endangered in the foreseeable future.
“The owl is imperiled throughout its range by activities that reduce and fragment its habitat. These threats include but are not limited to, invasive species, urbanization, agriculture and forest production, and climate change,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a press release.
Since 1992, the Center for Biological Diversity has lobbied for increased protection for the owl, which has a habitat that extends into Mexico and southern Arizona.
“I'm really glad that it's finally protected. I wish it wouldn't have taken so long, it’s in peril,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It'll get a recovery plan, there'll be more funding for research and monitoring. And there'll be habitat protections.”
Greenwald said that in Texas, the owl is found in live oak trees and along the banks of the Rio Grande.
On Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also proposed that two species of freshwater mussels receive protection under the Endangered Species Act, which is reserved for species in danger of extinction within all or a portion of their range.
The Salina Mucket and Mexican Fawnsfoot are both in danger of going extinct due to the loss of flowing water and poor water quality in the Rio Grande, the agency said in a written statement.
“I don't have to tell anybody in Texas that it's been insanely hot. The water evaporates more, and there's more demands for water and withdrawals from underground sources,” said Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The mussels live in flowing water. They need clean, flowing water in order to survive.”
Matthew Johnson, a biologist for The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who specializes in freshwater mussel conservation, said the agency is working closely with Big Bend National Park to manage the Rio Grande in ways that are “beneficial to the species.” The Salina Mucket lives just downstream from the park, while the Mexican Fawnsfoot’s habitat stretches from Eagle Pass downstream to San Ygnacio.
Johnson said he hopes other state agencies partner with the federal agency to help protect the mussels, adding that if they go extinct, there could be larger ramifications for the ecosystem.
“They play such an important role in maintaining water quality by filtering out gallons and gallons every day to help improve that water quality,” he said. “They help stabilize river beds just by their presence, they are important food sources for other animals that live around rivers. “When they die, their shells can be suitable habitat for snails and fish … they play a very important role.”
Robinson said the owl and the mussels are just a few of many Texas species in need of attention.
“There’s quite a few imperiled species in Texas that we are pushing the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect, and that will really conserve the beauty of the Lone Star State from the piney woods in the east to the grasslands and mountains in the west and all the varied environments in between,” Robinson said.
Join us for conversations that matter with newly announced speakers at the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, in downtown Austin from Sept. 21-23.