US Fish and Wildlife Service

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

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

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

In overturning a US Fish and Wildlife Service decision not to list the arctic grayling, the Ninth Circuit has shifted the burden to federal wildlife agencies to explain why listing is not appropriate when there is uncertainty regarding potential climate change impacts.
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Overturns Climate Change-Based Decision Not to List Species Under ESA