October 8, 2020
A petition urging the preservation of important habitat designation rules was submitted this Friday to the U.S. Department of the Interior by a coalition of environment and conservation groups across the country. The letter read as follows:
“Dear Secretary Bernhardt:
On behalf of our millions of members and supporters nationwide, we urge you to withdraw the two recent proposed rules related to habitat designation under the Endangered Species Act. Protection of habitat is central to the conservation of imperiled species. The ESA’s purpose is to conserve, “the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend,” as well as protect and recover endangered species and threatened species themselves. Designation of critical habitat is a key tool authorized by the ESA to ensure habitat, including unoccupied habitat needed for recovery, is conserved. Weakening agencies’ authority to protect such habitat would be a severe blow to the efficacy of the Act and its ability to spare species from extinction.
On August 5, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed two definitions of the word “habitat.” Both options would limit rather than enhance the Services’ ability to conserve species that may require habitat restoration or that may find their historic range shifting as a result of climate change. The options presented in this rule are unclear and potentially limiting at best, and explicitly restrictive at worst.
“On September 4, 2020, the USFWS proposed new regulations that would expand the agency’s ability to exclude areas essential to the conservation of threatened and endangered species from designation as critical habitat under the ESA. Among other problematic provisions, it states that the USFWS must exclude areas when the costs of designating them outweigh the benefits (except in cases where extinction will result). This is more restrictive than the ESA itself, which states the agency “may” exclude such areas. The proposal also reverses a longstanding presumption against excluding areas based upon economic considerations on public lands. These changes would grant economic considerations outsized weight in decisions about habitat that should prioritize species’ recovery needs and be driven by the best available science.
Research shows that critical habitat designations do not affect all private development. In fact, the ESA restricts only federal actions destroying or adversely modifying critical habitat; private activities that do not require federal permits are unaffected, and those requiring federal permits can generally proceed with minor, but essential, modifications to protect imperiled species.
Properly implemented, critical habitat designations advance the ESA’s recovery goals by striking a science-driven balance between conservation and economic activity.
[T]his is a moment when—more than ever—we need strong and effective conservation laws. One million species are at risk of extinction, many within decades, due to human activity, according to a devastating May 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The report warns that the health of ecosystems upon which humans and all other species depend is deteriorating globally at unprecedented rates, with grave implications for our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.
Protecting our natural heritage—including threatened and endangered species—is a core American value. We urge you to help save our most imperiled plants and animals from extinction by strongly and fully implementing the ESA and by withdrawing these two proposed rules.”
You can see the petition and its signatory parties here.
Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is a nonprofit Missouri-based public interest law firm that works to protect the environment and public health, and empower ordinary citizens to stand up for their environmental interests. We receive no government funding and rely on donations to sustain our work.