The lesser prairie-chicken—a grouse whose range covers the western portions of Kansas and Oklahoma; the Texas Panhandle, including the Llano Estacado; eastern New Mexico; and southeastern Colorado—is subject to yet another proposed listing under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  On June 1, 2021, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (“FWS” or the “Service”) proposed to re-list two distinct population segments (“DPS”) of the species.  86 Fed. Reg. 29,432 (June 1, 2021).  The proposal is subject to a 60‑day public comment period, through August 2.  FWS is expected to issue a final decision within a year.

Continue Reading Lesser Prairie-Chicken Faces Re-Listing Under the Endangered Species Act

As we previously reported, for the first time in over 25 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the formal transfer of Clean Water Act (CWA) section 404 permitting authority to a state.  On December 22, 2020, the State of Florida – only the third state to receive such approval – “assumed” 404 permitting authority from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) in certain waters of the United States (WOTUS).  Since that time, CWA section 404 permit applicants have faced a number of questions about the scope and process of assumed 404 permitting.  Five of the top questions are listed below, followed by their answers.

Continue Reading Top 5 Frequently Asked Questions About Florida’s Assumption of Clean Water Act 404 Program

A December 2020 final rule defining “habitat” could have important consequences for future designations of lands and waters as “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Designation of critical habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service (jointly, the “Services”) can affect projects that require federal agency permits or funding, because ESA section 7 requires federal agencies to ensure through consultation with the Services that their actions are not likely to adversely modify or destroy designated critical habitat.

On December 16, 2020, the Services adopted, for the first time, a regulatory definition of habitat, as follows:

For the purposes of designating critical habitat only, habitat is the abiotic and biotic setting that currently or periodically contains the resources and conditions necessary to support one or more life processes of a species.
Continue Reading Federal Wildlife Agencies Issue Final Regulatory Definition of “Habitat”

Before yesterday only two states had received approval to administer the Clean Water Act (CWA) section 404 program (Michigan and New Jersey), and no state had received approval since 1994.  Now, for the first time in over 25 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the formal transfer of section 404 permitting authority to a third state: Florida.  Once EPA’s approval is published in the Federal Register, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) will “assume” 404 permitting authority from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) in certain waters, significantly altering the 404 permitting process in Florida.  EPA’s decision has broader implications for the 404 program on a national scale, as other states, including Oregon and Minnesota, consider whether to pursue assumption.

Continue Reading Florida Receives EPA Approval to Assume Clean Water Act Section 404 Program

Determining which areas constitute habitat for listed species has important consequences under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA” or “Act”), yet “habitat” is not currently defined by the Act or its implementing regulations.  On August 5, 2020, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (jointly, “the Services”) proposed a rule to define “habitat” for purposes of designating “critical habitat” under section 4 of the Endangered Species Act.  See 85 Fed. Reg. 47,333 (Aug. 5, 2020).  The Services’ proposal responds to the Supreme Court’s November 27, 2018, unanimous holding in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 139 S. Ct. 361 (2018), that an area is eligible for designation as critical habitat under the ESA only if the area is actually habitat for that species.  Accordingly, a final rule defining “habitat” would determine which areas of land and water are eligible for designation as critical habitat.  Such designations can affect projects that require federal agency permits or funding, because ESA section 7 consultation requires federal agencies to ensure that their actions are not likely to adversely modify or destroy designated critical habitat.  The result for federally approved or funded projects can be increased permitting costs and risks, and longer timelines.  The proposal’s comment period ended on September 4.  Over 160,000 comments were submitted.  Stakeholders now await a final rule.

Continue Reading Services Propose Definition of Habitat for ESA Regulations

The first comprehensive revision of the NEPA implementing regulations in over forty years goes into effect today. Litigants sought a preliminary injunction to block implementation of the rule nationwide, but their motion was denied by a district court late last week. While litigation is ongoing in three district courts, the new rule will apply to all new NEPA reviews started on or after September 14, 2020, and agencies will have discretion to apply the new rule to ongoing NEPA reviews initiated before September 14.
Continue Reading After Surviving Preliminary Injunction Motion, New NEPA Rule Becomes Effective Today

Regulatory staff continue to advance the Administration’s regulatory agenda, including issuing proposed and final rules. This blog post highlights the status of key natural resource regulatory actions.
Continue Reading COVID-19 and the CRA Deadline: Status of the Natural Resources Regulatory Agenda

The Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) outbreak is affecting virtually every sector of society and the economy. The healthcare sector and government agencies are on the front lines of the response. Providing support to these critical response activities as well as striving to maintain the strength of the overall economy by continuing regular business operations is vitally important. The private sector has important roles to play. The purpose of this blog post is to briefly outline some practical and legal tools available to help provide both direct support and maintain broader economic activities while ensuring environmental protection and compliance with natural resource laws.

This blog post will be updated as new or relevant information becomes available.


Continue Reading Tools for Navigating Natural Resource Laws During a National Emergency

All three branches of the federal government are currently considering the question of whether the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) prohibits the take of protected birds that is incidental to some otherwise lawful activity. The latest development is a proposal by US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS or Service) to issue a regulation expressly defining the scope of the MBTA to exclude take “that results from, but is not the purpose of, an action (i.e., incidental taking or killing).” 85 Fed. Reg. 5915 (Feb. 3, 2020). This proposal is the latest effort by the USFWS to bring clarity and certainty to a question that has been the subject of dispute for years and is currently both the subject of pending lawsuits and proposed legislation before Congress. If adopted, the rule should bolster the current administration’s effort to defend its interpretation of the statute, but the question is likely to be litigated further, assuming Congress does not intervene (seemingly unlikely for now).
Continue Reading USFWS Makes Another Move to Exclude Incidental Take from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses and Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 7 consultations are high on the list of project time, cost and risk drivers. The impact of these environmental reviews on projects often turns on the scope of those reviews, which in turn depends on determining which effects will be caused by the action. In August 2019 the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service established, for the first time, a regulatory causation standard governing ESA section 7 consultations, and, in January 2020, the Council on Environmental Quality proposed a new regulatory causation standard governing NEPA reviews.
Continue Reading Streamlining NEPA and ESA Reviews: Importance of the Scope of Analysis