A fox walking across a tangle of fallen trees, dusted in snow

Habitat Protections

Defin­ing Habitat

2017-2021

  • August 2020

    In August 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice and Nation­al Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice released a pro­posed rule adding a new, restrict­ed def­i­n­i­tion of the term habi­tat” under the Endan­gered Species Act (ESA). The pro­pos­al requires that species must cur­rent­ly depend on an area and that the area must con­tain exist­ing attrib­ut­es” to sup­port a species in order for it to be defined as habi­tat.” By redefin­ing habi­tat, the pro­pos­al threat­ens crit­i­cal pro­tec­tions that are essen­tial for a species’ sur­vival and recovery.

  • Sep­tem­ber 2020

    In Sep­tem­ber 2020, a coali­tion of 17 attor­neys gen­er­al led by Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Xavier Becer­ra filed com­ments crit­i­ciz­ing the pro­pos­al as con­trary to the ESA and arbi­trary and capri­cious, and urged the Ser­vices to with­draw it. The attor­neys gen­er­al high­light­ed that the lan­guage in the pro­pos­al appears designed to pur­pose­ful­ly restrict the Ser­vices’ abil­i­ty to des­ig­nate habi­tat, con­trary to the ESA’s pri­ma­ry pur­pos­es of pro­mot­ing species sur­vival and recov­ery. By restrict­ing unoc­cu­pied habi­tat from being des­ig­nat­ed as such, the pro­posed def­i­n­i­tion poten­tial­ly excludes areas with­in the ESA’s exist­ing statu­to­ry def­i­n­i­tion of crit­i­cal habi­tat,” includ­ing restored habi­tat or oth­er areas a species may move into as they adapt to cli­mate change or oth­er human-caused activ­i­ty. The coali­tion also not­ed that the pro­pos­al is arbi­trary and capri­cious because it fails to pro­vide any rea­son­able expla­na­tion for the change and point­ed out that it is a sub­stan­tive change that requires envi­ron­men­tal review under the Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act.

  • Decem­ber 2020

    In Decem­ber 2020, the Ser­vices released the final ver­sion of the def­i­n­i­tion of the term habi­tat” under the ESA. The final rule removed areas” and exist­ing attrib­ut­es” from the def­i­n­i­tion. Instead, the Ser­vices adopt­ed the fol­low­ing def­i­n­i­tion for habi­tat”: 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.”

Des­ig­nat­ing Crit­i­cal Habitat

2017-2021

  • Sep­tem­ber 2020

    In Sep­tem­ber 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice released a pro­pos­al that would dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduce the amount of crit­i­cal habi­tat des­ig­nat­ed for pro­tec­tion, jeop­ar­diz­ing species’ sur­vival and recov­ery. The pro­pos­al would impose a new manda­to­ry oblig­a­tion on the Ser­vice to under­take an analy­sis of the ben­e­fits of exclud­ing an area from a crit­i­cal habi­tat des­ig­na­tion when­ev­er a pro­po­nent of exclu­sion — such as a devel­op­er or a min­ing or log­ging com­pa­ny — pro­vides cred­i­ble infor­ma­tion” in sup­port of their posi­tion. The pro­pos­al also requires the Ser­vice to defer to out­side experts” and sources” with first­hand infor­ma­tion” regard­ing non-bio­log­i­cal impacts, and in some cas­es regard­ing bio­log­i­cal impacts that are express­ly with­in the Service’s expertise.

  • Octo­ber 2020

    In Octo­ber 2020, a coali­tion of 17 state attor­neys gen­er­al led by Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra, Mary­land Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bri­an Frosh, and Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­ney Gen­er­al Mau­ra Healey sub­mit­ted com­ments in oppo­si­tion to the pro­pos­al. In their com­ments, the attor­neys gen­er­al warned that by impos­ing the manda­to­ry oblig­a­tion to ana­lyze the ben­e­fits of exclud­ing crit­i­cal habi­tat, the pro­pos­al would under­mine and con­flict with the ESA, which makes clear that an exclu­sion analy­sis and find­ing is always dis­cre­tionary. The attor­neys gen­er­al also empha­sized that the pro­pos­al would give pri­vate inter­ests inap­pro­pri­ate and exces­sive influ­ence over exclu­sion analy­sis and would vio­late the ESA’s require­ment that the Ser­vice base crit­i­cal habi­tat deter­mi­na­tions on its own inde­pen­dent pro­fes­sion­al judg­ment using the best avail­able sci­ence. The coali­tion not­ed that the pro­pos­al lacks rea­soned jus­ti­fi­ca­tion required under the Admin­is­tra­tive Pro­ce­dure Act (APA) and vio­lates NEPA, and urged the Ser­vice to aban­don it.

  • Decem­ber 2020

    In Decem­ber 2020, the Ser­vice released the final ver­sion of the reg­u­la­tions des­ig­nat­ing crit­i­cal habi­tat. The final rule includes pro­vi­sions that the attor­neys gen­er­al found dis­tress­ing, includ­ing the manda­to­ry oblig­a­tion to ana­lyze the ben­e­fits of exclud­ing an area from crit­i­cal habi­tat des­ig­na­tion based on claims of cred­i­ble infor­ma­tion” from exclu­sion pro­po­nents. The rule also will require the Ser­vice to defer to out­side sources of infor­ma­tion regard­ing non-bio­log­i­cal impacts.

Law­suit Chal­leng­ing Habi­tat Pro­tec­tion Actions

2017-2021

  • Jan­u­ary 2021

    At the tail end of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion in Jan­u­ary 2021, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra and Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­ney Gen­er­al Healey led a coali­tion of 18 attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing a law­suit in fed­er­al dis­trict court in Cal­i­for­nia chal­leng­ing both Decem­ber 2020 habi­tat rules. The law­suit request­ed that the court vacate the twin set of habi­tat rules as the rules vio­late the lan­guage, pur­pose, and leg­isla­tive his­to­ry of the ESA; lack a rea­soned jus­ti­fi­ca­tion as required under the APA; and vio­late NEPA in fail­ing to con­sid­er and dis­close the envi­ron­men­tal impacts of the rules.