On June 2, 2000, Judge Susan Oki Mollway of Hawai’i’s federal district court ordered Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“Service”) Jamie Clark to designate “critical habitat” for four rare invertebrate species found only in Hawai’i. The ruling, which culminates a lawsuit brought in August 1999 by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, ensures that the species — Blackburn’s sphinx moth, Newcomb’s snail, Kaua`i cave wolf spider and Kaua`i cave amphipod — will enjoy the full range of protection under the federal Endangered Species Act no later than February 1, 2002. Earlier this year, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and the Center for Biological Diversity forced the Service to finalize proposals to add all four species to the federal list of endangered and threatened species, but the Service illegally refused to designate the species’ critical habitats at that time.
“This is a victory not only for these four insect and snail species, but for countless other Hawaiian species that depend on the same native ecosystems,” said Peter Galvin, Conservation Biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. “By protecting critical habitat, we protect the entire web of life.”
Designating critical habitat is necessary to provide the four invertebrate species with protection from imminent threats posed by the destruction and modification of their habitat. The two Kaua`i cave species are currently limited to four square miles of habitat; most of their historic habitat has already been highly modified by development projects, with an estimated 75% of the area rendered uninhabitable. The Newcomb’s snail is restricted to six streams on Kaua`i, with each stream supporting a single snail population. The number of populations of Newcomb’s snail have declined severely since 1925, perhaps by as much as 60%. The Blackburn’s sphinx moth – Hawai’i’s largest native insect – was believed to be extinct until a single population was discovered on Maui in 1984. Habitat degradation by goats and Hawai’i National Guard training fires now threaten that population.
“Because the Service routinely refuses to comply with the Endangered Species Act, only a handful of Hawai’i’s more than 300 threatened and endangered species currently benefits from the vital protection critical habitat confers,” explained Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “Fortunately, we have concerned citizen groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, who have been willing to step forward and go to court to force the Service to do what the law requires. In the next few years, because of citizen lawsuits, literally hundreds of imperiled Hawaiian species will finally get the critical habitat protection that they desperately need, and that the Service was supposed to confer on the day these species were listed.”
“Critical habitat” consists of those areas that must be managed to permit an imperiled species to recover to a level where it is safe, for the foreseeable future, from the danger of extinction. Critical habitat designation has little impact on private land owners since it is directed solely at actions carried out, funded or approved by federal agencies. Nonetheless, designating critical habitat confers significant benefits on Hawai’i’s endangered and threatened species by protecting them from federal agency actions — such as federal funding of road improvements, federal infrastructure projects, and National Guard training — that can adversely modify or destroy the habitat on which the species depend for their continued survival and eventual recovery. Also, designating critical habitat performs an important educational role, informing the public as well as state and local governments about areas essential to the conservation of Hawai’i’s native species.