Critical Habitat: The Inside Story

  • California condor is endangered in California

    Mark A. Chappell
  • San Joaquin kit fox, whooping crane and gray wolf

    USFWS, Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept., and USFWS
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "High Noon for Habitat."

1973 — Congress passes the original Endangered Species Act. Section 7 says that federal agencies must ensure that any federal action "doesn’t cause destruction or modification of habitat" that is deemed critical for a listed species.

1975 — The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service publish a notice in the Federal Register explaining that designating critical habitat is "necessary and desirable, whenever and wherever possible."

1976 — The Service designates its first critical habitats, for the snail darter, the yellow-shouldered blackbird, the American crocodile, the California condor, the Indiana bat and the Florida manatee.

1978 — The U.S. Supreme Court halts construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee to protect the critical habitat of the endangered snail darter, a three-and-a-half-inch-long fish. (Congress later overturns the ruling by exempting the dam from the ESA.)

1978 — A U.S. district judge stops a smaller dam and a power plant on a Wyoming tributary to the North Platte River to protect critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane.

1978 — In the first formal definition of critical habitat, Congress calls it any part of the landscape — flora, fauna, climate, soil, water and air — containing features "essential to the conservation of a species." But partly in reaction to the snail darter and whooping crane cases, Congress allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to exclude areas if the costs of designation exceed the benefits, or if such designation would cause additional risk to a species.

1978 — The Carter administration lists 41 species to protect against what the president calls "imminent threats" that could destroy their habitat. In the following years, the Fish and Wildlife Service designates critical habitat for dozens of species, including more than a million acres for the gray wolf and 58,680 for the whooping crane.

1980 — Shortly after the election of President Ronald Reagan, the Service, under the control of Interior Secretary James Watt, slows the pace of new listings to a trickle. The average annual number of listings plummets, from 33 between 1976 and 1979 to 9 between 1980 and 1983.

1983 — The Interior Department proposes revisions to the ESA, adopted three years later, that make it much more difficult to prove that critical habitat designation adds protection beyond that provided by the law’s ban on acts that could "jeopardize" a species’ existence.

1984 — The Service issues a memo saying that "only very infrequently has (critical habitat) provided, or had the potential to provide, the margin of difference in the welfare or likelihood of recovery of a species. In contrast, a proposed (habitat protection) very frequently has caused or contributed to public or interagency antagonism, increased the amount of agency work days required to complete a listing action…"

1986 — Service biologist Carl Couret writes that officials of six Service field offices have told him that they believe critical habitat has helped or could help protect a listed species, and in some instances has proven very important.

1987 — Service biologist John Sidle writes a peer-reviewed paper that appears to disparage the benefits of critical habitat. The paper is cited to this day by the rule’s critics, but Sidle says it has been misinterpreted, and that he supports critical habitat for most species.

1992 — The Interior Department’s solicitor’s office determines that critical habitat does provide additional benefits. In a memo to the agency’s regional directors, Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Richard Smith warns that the argument that critical habitat protections are the same as rules prohibiting "jeopardizing" species will not hold up in court.

1994 — Republicans, led by Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, take control of Congress for the first time since 1952. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., leads the charge to roll back environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act.

1994 — Richard Pombo testifies before a Senate subcommittee that critical habitat for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox stripped the value from his family’s land. But no critical habitat has ever been designated for the fox. Later, on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, Pombo admits he has never been directly affected by critical habitat.

1998 — The "Republican Revolution" crumbles. In the wake of Republican election losses, Gingrich resigns as House speaker and gives up his seat in the House.

2003 — Richard Pombo becomes chairman of the House Resources Committee.

2003 — With George W. Bush president, the Interior Department orders the Fish and Wildlife Service to include a disclaimer in critical habitat designations that reads, in part, "In 30 years of implementing the ESA, the Service has found that the designation of statutory critical habitat provides little additional protection to most listed species, while consuming significant amounts of scarce conservation resources."

2004 — The Center for Biological Diversity files a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documentation backing up the Service’s disclaimer. Twice, the agency replies by saying it "has no documents responsive to your request."

2004 — A decade-old proposal to designate the Lower Colorado River as critical habitat for the endangered razorback sucker and other fish leads Interior Secretary Gale Norton to sign an agreement with the three Lower Basin states protecting 8,100 acres of riparian, marsh and backwater habitat.

2004 — The Center’s science and policy director, Kieran Suckling, and two other scientists write a study, later published in the peer-reviewed journal Biosciences, saying that in the years 1996-1997 and 1999-2000, species with critical habitat did twice as well as species without it.

2005 — Responding to another Center FOIA request, the Service releases an e-mail from an agency official, whose name is redacted, that takes issue with an early draft of the Center’s study. The e-mailer adds, however, "As flawed as the authors’ approach might be, they have more science behind their position than the (Interior Department) and/or the administration has behind theirs."

2005 — Richard Pombo tries, for the 12th time, to get an ESA rewrite through the House of Representatives – and succeeds. If passed by the Senate and approved by the president, the proposal would eliminate the critical habitat rule.

2006 — Senate leaders have promised an ESA reform bill by late February or early March.

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.