Today, the Center for Biological Diversity, represented by Earthjustice, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached a settlement that puts the Rota bridled white-eye, a forest-dwelling bird found only on the western Pacific island of Rota in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a crucial step closer to protection for its essential recovery habitat. In the agreement, the Service conceded that its failure to map out and protect the white-eye’s critical habitat at the time it listed the species as endangered in January 2004 violated the Endangered Species Act. The Service agreed to come out with a proposed critical habitat designation by September 7, 2005, and a final designation decision by September 7, 2006.
“It’s a shame that the Service refused to do anything to protect the white-eye’s essential recovery habitat for over twenty years, while the bird’s numbers declined by 90 percent,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope that it’s not too late to save the white-eye and that, with the Service’s admission today that it violated the law, other imperiled species will not suffer the same fate.”
Conservation groups petitioned the Department of Interior to put the white-eye on the endangered list in 1980. The department agreed that the species was declining and, in 1982, with 10,763 birds left in the wild, identified the white-eye as a candidate for listing. The species continued to decline unprotected for over two decades until Earthjustice and the Center secured a series of court orders forcing the Bush administration finally to list it as an endangered species in January 2004. By this time, the wild population had declined to just 1,092 birds.
In the final listing rule, the administration identified habitat loss and degradation as primary causes of the species’ dramatic decline, yet refused to designate critical habitat. On May 20, 2004, Earthjustice, representing the Center for Biological Diversity, filed suit against the Bush administration to force it to obey the law.
“This case vividly illustrates Congress’s wisdom when it empowered citizens to sue the Service for failing to comply with the Endangered Species Act,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who represented the Center. “Even though the Service knew that its refusal to protect the white-eye’s essential recovery habitat was illegal, it would have gotten away with it, had concerned citizens not stepped forward to uphold the law.”
“Critical habitat” consists of those areas that must be managed to ensure the species recovers. Federal agencies may not carry out, fund, or approve any actions that destroy or adversely modify critical habitat. Since the restrictions are directed solely at federal agencies, designation generally has little direct effect on private landowners. However, critical habitat also performs an important educational role, informing the public and local governments about areas essential to species recovery.
Data submitted to Congress by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that species with critical habitat are twice as like to be improving as species without it.