Conservation groups have learned that the Bush Administration is planning to undermine one of the most important protections offered by the federal Endangered Species Act: critical habitat designation.
This announcement represents the second wave in a two-pronged attack on critical habitat (those places needed for recovery for species). The first attack, contained in an amendment to the House version of the Defense Department appropriations bill, would have arguably given the Secretary of the Interior sole discretion regarding where and when-and whether-to designate critical habitat for endangered species. Although the appropriations bill still contains a damaging ESA exemption for the Department of Defense, the more radical amendment was defeated by the House on May 21.
This week, the Bush administration will launch its latest attack on critical habitat by arguing that studying and protecting the places that are essential to species survival is unnecessary. Specifically, the Department of Interior is planning to insert language into all future critical habitat designations that argues that these protections have no value in species protection.
“The administration plans to argue that the Endangered Species Act is broken,” said Susan Holmes, Senior Legislative Representative for Earthjustice, the nation’s largest non-profit law firm for the environment. “The fact is, the ESA has been working for 30 years-until this Administration came along.”
New Instructions: Violate the Letter of the Law, Plead Poverty
Critical habitat designation is one of the three essential legs on which the federal Endangered Species Act stands; the others are the listing of threatened and endangered species, and the development of recovery plans. Current rules require that habitat be designated for all species.
“Essentially, the administration is claiming that species don’t need a home,” said Holmes. “We know that the number one reason why wildlife becomes endangered is loss of habitat. If we don’t protect the places where these species live, these plants and animals may be lost.”
The Bush administration proposal will claim not only that critical habitat is not important, but also that federal agencies do not have the funds they need to conduct surveys and draw maps of each species’ critical habitat, as required under the law. Yet scientific surveys have demonstrated that species with critical habitat are improving faster than those without.
“The Bush administration is attacking critical habitat because it works. Species with critical habitat are recovering twice as fast as those without it,” said Kieran Suckling with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Removing critical habitat from the Endangered Species Act is like removing the engine from a car. It won’t work,” add Suckling. “The Bush administration is trying to stop the Endangered Species Act from working.”
This year, the Bush administration requested just $9 million dollars for species protection duties at the Fish and Wildlife Service, although the agency’s own internal analysis admits these duties would require at least $153 million to address the backlog. The Bush Administration was invited by Congress to request more money for the wildlife agency for fiscal year 2003, but has not done so.
“What we are seeing now is a bold, aggressive attempt by the Bush administration to undo the very environmental laws that Americans overwhelmingly support,” said Bill Snape of Defenders of Wildlife. “This should be a wakeup call to everyone who loves our natural heritage. We must speak up now, or risk losing the magnificent diversity of species that our grandchildren might want to see in their natural environment, not in a zoo or history book.”
Conservation groups said they were prepared to return to the courts if necessary to defend the Endangered Species Act and the species the law protects.
“The Endangered Species Act couldn’t be clearer: except in the rarest of circumstances, every listed species must have its habitat protected through critical habitat designation,” said Andrew Wetzler, Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If the Bush Administration tries to get around this clear legal requirement the environmental community is more than ready to use the courts to stop them.”
View a background memo on this issue here
Species Directly Affected
The Bush plan would also scuttle currently planned critical habitat designations, including 10 in California alone. Below is a list of species that will be immediately affected by the DOI suspensions of Critical Habitat designation. For all these species, the DOI plans to ask the courts for extensions on deadlines for designating critical habitat into 2004 and beyond.
- California Red-Legged Frog
- Lane Mountain Milk-vetch
- Arroyo Toad
- Riverside Fairy Shrimp
- Santa Ana Sucker
- Ventura Marsh Milk-vetch
- La Graciosa Thistle
- Fish Slough Milk-vetch
- Spreading Navarretia
- San Jacinto Crownscale
- Topeka Shiner (Missouri)
- 11 mussel species from the Mobile River
- Cumberland Elktoe (mussel) and four Tennessee bivalves
Other states and regions:
- Pygmy Owl (Arizona)
- Bull Trout – Columbia and Klamath proposed rule, will halt finalization; also proposed critical habitat on other population segments (Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington)
- Mexican Spotted Owl (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah)
- Eggert’s Sunflower (Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee)
- Colorado Butterfly Plant (Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming)