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SCB Petitions Agencies To Strengthen Critical Habitat Regulations for Endangered Species

On July 5, 2012, the Society for Conservation Biology submitted a formal PETITION to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) requesting that these agencies strengthen their regulations on critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires that all agencies of the Federal government consult with FWS and NOAA (collectively the “Services”) on actions that could jeopardize the existence of threatened and endangered species or result in the “destruction or adverse modification” of a species’ critical habitat.  In 1986, the Services proposed a weak regulatory definition of the term “destruction or adverse modification,” that undercut the protective effects of critical habitat.  Despite the Services’ definition being held legally invalid by three separate Federal Courts of Appeals as far back as 2001, the Services have still not changed their legally invalid regulations.  SCB is proposing a new definition of these terms that has a clear scientific basis, and that will require the Services to consider and provide for the recovery, not just the survival, of threatened and endangered species.

SCB is also proposing changes to the Services’ regulations to ensure that the Services consider and address climate change and habitat connectivity in the context of species recovery when they designates critical habitat.  Finally, SCB is proposing that the Services adopt a strict timeline for processing petitions to designate critical habitat.  As of April 2011, critical habitat has only been designated for 604 or 44 percent of the 1,372 domestic species protected by the ESA.  The Services' ability to address this backlog would be significantly improved if they agreed to an objective timeline for designating critical habitat for those species which have not yet received critical habitat.

SCB is filing this petition concurrently with its COMMENTS regarding the FWS’s revised critical habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina).  The FWS is proposing to designate up to 13.9 million acres as critical habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl (NSO).  While this would be a positive step for the recovery of the NSO, unfortunately the FWS is simultaneously undermining the long-term effectiveness of critical habitat by including several policy decisions that could undercut the recovery of the NSO.  For example, the FWS is proposing that any logging project smaller than 500 acres would not represent “destruction or adverse modification” of spotted owl critical habitat, despite the fact that there is no scientific literature supporting this policy.  SCB’s proposed reforms of the ESA’s regulations would prohibit the FWS from chopping up the NSO’s critical habitat in an unscientific, high-risk manner.

This is the second petition filed by SCB in 2012 to reform, strengthen, and modernize the regulations that implement the ESA.  While the ESA remains one of the most comprehensive laws ever passed to prevent extinction, the regulations that implement the ESA have mostly stood unchanged since 1986, a year before the founding of the Society for Conservation Biology.  In late 2008, SCB briefed the Obama Transition team on a set of recommendations for improving the implementation of several U.S. laws including the ESA. Since then we have worked with the FWS and NOAA to address the reforms we suggested in 2008.

Read the petition to the Department of Interior and Department of Commerce HERE.

More information on SCB’s efforts to strengthen the ESA can be found HERE or on our Scientific Integrity page.