Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, October 9, 2014

Contact: Brett Hartl, (202) 817-8121

200 Conservation Groups, 50 Scientists Call for Stronger Critical Habitat
Protections for Endangered Species

Administration Proposal Will Hurt Endangered Species by
Enabling Habitat Destruction, ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity submitted a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today, signed by 207 conservation groups, criticizing a proposal that weakens habitat protections for endangered species.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are prohibited from “adversely modifying” — that is, hurting — critical habitat for endangered species in actions they fund, permit or carry out. The administration’s proposal will enable more habitat destruction by redefining adverse modification as only those actions considered to potentially harm the entirety of a species’ designated critical habitat, a change that will give a green light to the many federal actions that destroy small portions of critical habitat. If enacted the new proposal could allow the proliferation of projects that harm a species’ habitat without assurance that the cumulative effects will be taken into account — a particularly problematic development because the Fish and Wildlife Service already has a dismal record of tracking and limiting cumulative impacts on wildlife.

“We can't recover endangered species without saving the places they live,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center. “This proposal will allow for extensive destruction of critical habitat and ultimately put endangered species at greater risk of extinction.”  

A series of court cases brought by conservation groups invalidated the previous definition of “destruction or adverse modification” for failing to recognize the importance of critical habitat for the recovery of endangered species. While the new proposal tacitly acknowledges the importance of critical habitat on paper, it creates a huge real-world loophole that will allow thousands of federal projects to proceed. It ignores the on-the-ground reality that most imperiled species become endangered not due to a single action or event that destroys most of their habitat, but from hundreds or thousands of small impacts that whittle away at the species’ habitat. The current proposal will do nothing to address this problem. 

“From the viewpoint of an endangered species, losing your habitat 1 percent — or one-tenth of a percent — at a time really has the same end result as destroying your home in one blow,” said Hartl. “And unfortunately, when habitats are whittled away, it’s harder to stem the bleeding. This slows down recovery efforts and makes them more expensive — with lethal results for endangered animals and plants.”

Also today 50 scientists sent a separate letter to the agencies echoing conservationists’ concerns, faulting the proposal’s lack of scientific foundation and highlighting the urgent need for the administration to develop the capacity to track cumulative impacts to endangered species habitats.

“Critical habitats are just that — the special places that allow species to survive. We must not let them erode and watch species die slowly,” said Dr. Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke professor of conservation ecology at Duke University and one of the signers of the scientists’ letter.

The scientists’ letter highlights the critical habitat of northern spotted owls as an example of how the current proposal undermines recovery prospects for species. In 2012 the Fish and Wildlife Service designated approximately 9.5 million acres of critical habitat for the owls, but stated that “the determination of whether an action is likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat is made at the scale of the entire critical habitat network.” Because of the size of the total critical habitat designation, even if a federal agency proposed destroying 10,000 acres of habitat, it would not likely diminish the conservation value of the entire critical habitat network. Since most impacts are much smaller than this, all of these impacts will go forward unaddressed.

“By weakening the standard for critical habitat protections, the Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a requiem for the northern spotted owl and countless other species that will suffer further declines,” said Dr. Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist of Geos Institute, former member of the recovery team for the northern spotted owl and another signer of the letter. 

Over time the cumulative effect of many small impacts to critical habitat can have significant implications for the recovery prospects of endangered species. Without careful accounting and tracking of impacts, it is often hard to detect these negative effects until major declines occur. In fact, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a 2009 report to Congress that the Fish and Wildlife Service does not have the capacity or ability to track cumulative impacts to critical habitat that are authorized during the Endangered Species Act consultation process. Without the ability to track cumulative impacts, the protective measures of the Act will be less effective at recovering endangered species.

“The real danger of accepting the mindset that death by a thousand cuts is acceptable is that no one knows which specific cut will be the one that seals the fate of an endangered species. The Services are not taking a cautionary approach to protecting endangered species,” said Dr. Reed Noss, professor at the University of Central Florida.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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