Critical habitat under scrutiny


Endangered leatherback sea turtles can thank the Endangered Species Act for the government’s decision to add a chunk of ocean on the West Coast to their protected habitat earlier this year. In January, the feds expanded the graceful sea dweller’s critical habit to 41,914 salty square miles off California, Oregon and Washington.

The leatherback is one of many dwindling species that enjoys protections under the Endangered Species Act. As part of those protections for threatened and endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can designate areas it deems key for the species’ continued survival. Such areas may warrant special protection and are made off limits for federal actions that could destroy key habitat characteristics. Plants and critters granted this critical habitat, as it is called, are more than twice as likely to see their populations bounce back than those that don’t, according to one study.

When deciding on which areas to choose as critical habitat, or whether to designate it at all, the Service consults independent peer reviewers, experts on the species in question, who review FWS biologists’ proposals. But it’s not required to follow those recommendations. And a recent study published in the journal Bioscience, examining FWS decisions on critical habitat from 2002-2007, found that in most cases it does not.

“We’re seeing that they routinely ignored the scientific advice,” study co-author Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., told Science. “It’s a scientific integrity issue.”

Based on 169 peer reviews for 42 designations, the report concludes that in more than 90 percent of cases the Service did not follow peer reviewers’ recommendations to add areas to critical habitat. The Service was also more likely to cut areas from critical habitat, the study found.

The study should probably be qualified with a few caveats, though. The years assessed fell under George W. Bush’s reign and Bush did few favors for threatened and endangered species. Also, deputy assistant secretary for the Fish and Wildlife Service from 2004 to 2007, Julie MacDonald, known in some circles as “D.C.’s Duplicitous Deputy,” inappropriately influenced eight FWS endangered species decisions during her tenure.

MacDonald was found to have tweaked FWS biologists’ findings regarding potentially endangered species, including the white-tailed prairie dog and the Canada lynx. She also had a hand in the critical habitat designation for the Southwestern willow flycatcher. Her involvement resulted in slicing range area for the flycatcher in half, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The Service is currently seeking public comment on a revised proposal for critical habitat for the bird.

While the study assesses FWS critical habitat decisions during a period when there was antipathy toward endangered species, that’s not the whole story, says Noah Greenwald, lead author of the paper and endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group that routinely sues the government for its endangered species decisions.

“I think if we were to do this now, again, you would still find many examples where they simply just hadn’t considered what the peer reviewers said.”

In June, Greenwald’s organization slammed the Department of the Interior for its decision not to list as endangered the dunes sagebrush lizard, a reptile that lives in shinnery oak habit in New Mexico and Texas, calling it one that “ignores science and blatantly sidesteps the intentions of the Endangered Species Act.”

For the lizard, the government struck a deal with landowners in New Mexico and Texas, including oil and gas companies with operations in the oil-rich Permian Basin, and ranchers, who made agreements to reduce threats to the lizard on 600,000 acres of land. United States Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar called the move “the right thing for conservation, and the right thing for the economy.” However, these agreements, known as candidate conservation agreements and candidate conservation agreements with assurances, provide somewhat less protection than listing a species as endangered since they are voluntary.

While Greenwald highlighted the lizard case, he also noted that the FWS recently followed through with certain critical habitat designations according to peer reviewers’ recommendations, like with Sonoma County’s population of California tiger salamander last year. The Center for Biological Diversity previously sued the Bush administration for giving the salamander no critical habitat in 2005.

For its part, the Service sent High Country News a statement emphasizing that scientists may not always agree on the conclusions of a scientific analysis, and that under law it is required to consider other factors, including economics and national security issues, when designating critical habitat. Conservation plans with landowners, tribes and federal agencies also play into final designations.

Balancing these decisions can be tricky. When an area is protected as critical habitat, it often means activities like logging and energy development are restricted. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, some loggers blame protection of the Northern spotted owl for crippling the timber industry in old-growth forests there.

Be that as it may, critical habitat is key for endangered species and their recovery, says Greenwald.

Greenwald is calling for an increased reliance on the peer review process. He suggests that the Department of the Interior create an independent arbiter to review critical habitat decisions and assess whether they incorporate peer reviewers’ recommendations.

Brendon Bosworth is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.