Critical Habitat Designation

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”

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 Endangered Species Act increasingly plays a larger role in environmental law and the federal permitting process for infrastructure projects. Hunton Andrews Kurth Partner Kerry McGrath and Associate Brian Levey give an inside look at the complex process of obtaining federal authorization for “take” of endangered species.
Continue Reading VIDEO Inside Look: Endangered Species Act (ESA)

On August 12, 2019, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service signed final rules instituting the first comprehensive revisions to Endangered Species Act regulations in 33 years. The Services made substantial revisions to their regulations concerning listing and delisting species, critical habitat designations, consultation with federal agencies and the process for establishing protections for threatened species. Two states and numerous environmental groups have signaled their plan to challenge the new rules.
Continue Reading FWS and NMFS Complete Long-Awaited, Comprehensive Revision of ESA Regulations

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service issued three significant, highly anticipated, proposals to revise the Endangered Species Act regulations on July 19. The proposals address critical habitat designation, ESA section 7 consultation, and protection of threatened species. Once published in the Federal Register, there will be a 60 day comment period for all three proposals. The proposals would make important changes in each area, and are likely to garner substantial attention in public comments.
Continue Reading Services Propose Highly Anticipated Revisions to ESA Regulations on Critical Habitat Designation, Section 7 Consultation, and Protections for Threatened Species

As the Trump Administration is pushing forward on its deregulatory agenda and, in particular, its efforts to improve the Endangered Species Act and its implementation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, the Supreme Court is poised to hear a landmark case on designation of critical habitat under the ESA that could provide some guideposts for the Services’ new regulations.
Continue Reading Supreme Court to Evaluate Critical Habitat Limits as Services Ramp up ESA Reform Efforts

When Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems on which they depend, it emphasized the need to strike the proper balance between protecting species and allowing productive human activities. Widespread concern that this balance has been lost has sparked movement within the Trump Administration and Congress to improve the ESA and its implementation. With these key changes, the Trump Administration and Congress could make significant progress to restore what many believe is the ESA’s intended balance between the protection of species and economic growth.
Continue Reading Catching Our Balance: Opportunities for ESA Reform

From the Penobscot River in Maine to the St. Mary’s River in Florida, the Atlantic sturgeon ranges, swimming periodically up river to spawn and returning to marine waters when it is done. With a lifespan of up to 60 years, the Atlantic sturgeon can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Despite this species’ mighty proportions and vast range, five distinct population segments of the species have been listed by the as threatened or endangered.

Continue Reading From Maine to Florida, Designated Critical Habitat for Atlantic Sturgeon Will Complicate Federal Permitting