Proposed US regulatory changes recognize role of critical habitat in recovery of endangered species, will reform habitat protection process, but do little for species recovery, says Center for Biological Diversity

WASHINGTON , May 9, 2014 (press release) – Proposed Rule Changes Will Reform Process to Protect Critical Habitat, But Needs to Do More for Species Recovery

Obama administration proposals released today clarify the important role critical habitat plays in recovering endangered species, and they offer new guidance in designating and protecting those areas. But the proposals would continue to sanction ineffective conservation plans as an alternative to the proven benefits of designated critical habitat.

The two regulatory changes announced today address longstanding legal deficiencies found by the courts in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s current process for designating habitat. The first regulatory change finally recognizes the indispensable role critical habitat plays in the recovery of endangered species; the second change addresses flaws in the nuts and bolts of the process of designating habitat.

“Unfortunately habitat loss is still the leading cause of species endangerment and extinction, and these proposals — though a step forward in addressing the most blatant causes of harm to critical habitat — don’t ensure that species are really going to be put on the path to recovery,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “As it’s worded right now, the proposal fails to prevent cumulative harm, where endangered species die a slow death of a thousand cuts.”

The administration also released a draft policy today setting forth a more transparent evaluation process for deciding whether to exclude an area from a critical habitat designation if a private, state or federal conservation plan is working to protect the affected species. In the past the Fish and Wildlife Service’s process for excluding critical habitat was ad hoc and unpredictable in its outcome.

“Many questions remain unanswered about whether these conservation plans are just maintaining the status quo or actually recovering imperiled species,” said Hartl. “This policy is an improvement over the past standardless approach of excluding critical habitat, but there’s still no way of knowing if the benefit of excluding an area from a critical habitat designation actually recovers species.”

Today’s regulatory proposals provide a definition of the phrase “adverse modification or destruction of critical habitat.” Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act requires all agencies of the federal government to consult with the wildlife expert agencies to ensure that any action that they carry out, permit or fund does not adversely modify or destroy critical habitat. Over the past 10 years, federal courts rejected the existing regulatory definition of this phrase because the regulation discounted the recovery of endangered species.

The other regulatory changes proposed today address several administrative issues that have arisen in the past regarding the designation of critical habitat, including defining the geographic range of species; establishing when it is not prudent to designate critical habitat due to increased poaching; and defining collecting risks and what types of special management considerations are required for critical habitat.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places

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