Feds to reconsider vast species habitat designations

Critical habitat designations for 5 threatened or endangered species of California plants and animals will be formally re-evaluated by federal regulators, as part of a settlement finalized on March 24, 2006, with clients represented by Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF). In total, the habitat areas that will be reconsidered cover 288,722 acres in nine California counties, stretching from San Diego County in the South to San Mateo County in the North.

"This is a victory for a balanced approach to environmental policy that takes into account the well-being of humans and the economy as well as the status of at-risk species," said Pacific Legal Foundation principal attorney Reed Hopper.

"The courts have made it clear that federal agencies must take the guess work out of habitat protection," said Hopper. "When the government designates large areas of private land as defacto federal preserves, with the mere stroke of a pen, it must be absolutely certain those areas are essential to species conservation. That did not occur with these ‘critical habitat’ areas."

The settlement comes in a PLF lawsuit filed on March 30, 2005, against the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The suit challenged the federal agency’s failure to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in designating 382,000 acres of critical habitat for 27 species. PLF argued the contested habitat designations contained the same fatal flaws identified by a federal judge in PLF’s landmark 2003 court victory that invalidated the designation of thousands of acres of land as critical habitat for the Alameda whipsnake.

Specifically, the federal agencies did not adequately identify the areas that are essential to species conservation and relied on inadequate economic analyses in evaluating the social impact of designations as required by the act.

"Under this settlement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees to reconsider the largest habitat designations, covering 75 percent of the contested areas, relying on the best available science and taking into account all of the social impacts as the law requires," said Hopper.

In a separate suit, still pending, PLF is challenging the critical habitat designations for 15 "vernal pool species."

Because many of the habitat areas are very small and the wildlife service has limited resources, the parties agreed the wildlife service would not need to redo those habitat designations.

All of the habitat designations will remain in effect for the 27 species until the agency completes its review, which should be completed by the end of 2008.

These are the habitat designations that will be re-evaluated, by location and acreage:

— Monterey spineflower (a threatened plant): 18,830 acres in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.

— San Bernardino kangaroo rat (an endangered mammal): 33,295 acres in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

— La Graciosa thistle (an endangered plant): 41,089 acres in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

— Checkerspot butterfly (a threatened insect): 23,903 acres in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

— Quino Checkerspot butterfly (an endangered insect): 171,605 acres in Riverside and San Diego counties.

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