New ESA Critical Habitat Rules Expand Federal Authority and Add Uncertainty

On February 11, 2016, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (“FWS”), together with the National Marine Fisheries Service (“MFS”) (collectively “Services”) published two final rules and a final policy that purport to clarify their procedures for listing species under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) and designating and revising critical habitat for listed species. Hundreds of comments were filed opposing the Services’ actions, with the IPAA and numerous other trade organizations expressing significant concerns about the content and scope of the rules. The rules and policy become effective as of March 14, 2016. 

The new rules first revise the term “destruction or adverse modification.” This is a fundamentally important term in implementing the ESA. The new rule defines this term as follows:

Destruction or adverse modification means a direct or indirect alteration that appreciably diminishes the value of critical habitat for the conservation of a listed species. Such alterations may include, but are not limited to, those that alter the physical or biological features essential to the conservation of a species or that preclude or significantly delay development of such features.

50 C.F.R. 402.02, Definitions. This shifts the historic endpoint for this factor from “both the survival and recovery” of a species to simply conservation of a species. The Services have even changed the underlying significance of the term “conservation.” The existing Section 402.02 definitions include a definition for “conservation recommendations,” which are “suggestions of the Service regarding discretionary measures to minimize or avoid adverse effects of a proposed action on a listed species or critical habitat.” Under the new rule, Section 402.02’s definitions will include a definition for “conserve, conserving, and conservation”:

To use and the use of all methods and procedures that are necessary to bring any endangered or threatened species to the point at which the measures . . . are no longer necessary, i.e., the species is recovered in accordance with § 402.02 of this chapter.

50 C.F.R. 402.02, Definitions (Emphasis added). Thus at the outset the level of change that might be considered “destruction of modification” of critical habitat is arguably substantially different. Equally concerning, the remainder of the new definition appear to include current and future habitat features, and uses the newly defined and even broader term “physical or biological features.”

The new rules next change the FWS’ current rules found at 50 C.F.R. sections 424.12(b) and (e). The FWS and MFS plan to eliminate existing limitations on when they can designate unoccupied areas as critical habitat for listed species. Those limitations are generally set forth in Section 424.12(e) which currently states that FWS may include unoccupied area in designating critical habitat “only when a designation limited to its present range would be inadequate to ensure the conservation of the species.” (Emphasis added). Section 424.12(b)(2) of the new rule supersedes this provision, with the ability to designate unoccupied areas drafted as a mandate or general authority as opposed to a limitation. Section 424.12(b)(2) also relies on the new definition of “conservation” that leaves many concerned over whether “conservation” will now be equated with species recovery. The rule states as follows:

(b) Where designation of critical habitat is prudent and determinable, the Secretary will identify specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing and any specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species to be considered for designation as critical habitat.

* * * *

(2) The Secretary will identify, at a scale to be determined by the Secretary to be appropriate, specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species that are essential for its conservation, considering the life history, status, and conservation needs of the species based on the best available scientific data.

See 81 Fed. Reg. 7414 (February 11, 2016), at p. 7439 (Emphasis added). While the rule limits the Services’ reach to exclude foreign countries, 50 C.F.R. 424.12(g), their authorities to designate habitat for new or previously listed species, or to modify designated critical habitat where such habitat was previously designated, is otherwise broad. The Services are explicit in acknowledging their intent to increasingly exercise their discretion to include unoccupied areas outside of a species’ range where those areas “are essential for its conservation.” 50 C.F.R. 424.12(b)(2). New defined terms such as “physical and biological features,” “special management considerations” and “geographical area occupied” add to the uncertainty regarding critical habitat.

As rationale for the new rules, the Services cite past litigation, but also “anticipate that critical habitat designations in the future will likely increasingly use the authority to designate specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing.” 79 Fed. Reg. 27,066 (May 12. 2014), p. 27073. The Services go on to explain that “[a]s the effects of global climate change continue to influence distribution and migration patterns of species, the ability to designate areas that a species has not historically occupied is expected to become increasingly important.” For example, such areas may provide important connectivity between habitats, serve as movement corridors, or constitute emerging habitat for a species experiencing range shifts in latitude or altitude (such as to follow available prey or host plants). Where the best available scientific data suggest that specific unoccupied areas are, or it is reasonable to infer from the record that they will eventually become, necessary to support the species’ recovery, it may be appropriate to find that such areas are essential for the conservation of the species and thus meet the definition of “critical habitat.”” Id. The Services have relied on these generalized concepts of climate change to support sweeping new authority over the designation of unoccupied areas as critical habitat, and appear poised to regulate or prohibit changes to those unoccupied lands based on an inference that the lands may eventually become necessary to support the species’ recovery in the future.   

The final policy published together with the two new rules addresses the Services’ discretionary authority to exclude areas from a designation of critical habitat pursuant to Section 4(b)(2) of the ESA. According to the Services, “[t]he final policy consists of six elements that the Services consider when determining whether to exclude any areas from critical habitat: (1) partnerships and conservation plans, (2) conservation plans permitted under section 10 of the ESA, (3) tribal lands, (4) national security and homeland security impacts, and military lands, (5) federal lands, and (6) economic impacts.” See The policy sets a high bar for when areas will be excluded as critical habitat based on private and non-federal conservation plans or agreements. Evaluations pursuant to 4(d)(2) involving non-permitted conservation plans or agreements will be considered using at least eight factors, one of which is the “degree to which the plan or agreement provides for the conservation of the essential physical or biological features for the species.” 81 Fed. Reg. 7226 (February 11, 2016), at p. 7247 (Emphasis added). The policy is also notable in its express intent to focus on non-federal lands, and its statement that “the benefits of designating Federal lands as critical habitat are typically greater than the benefits of excluding Federal lands or of designating non-federal lands. This part of the policy seems not to properly consider the approximately 700 million acres of federal mineral estate lands and the over-300 million acres of surface estate federal lands, many of which are leased for various mining, exploration or other activities. See

Given the breadth of the Services’ new rules, and the ambiguity that appears in the new definitions and other rule changes, lawsuits are anticipated challenging the rules. The following is a link to dockets for each final action:!docketDetail;D=FWS-HQ-ES-2012-0096. This article was prepared by Allyn Turner who may be reached at

Allyn Turner concentrates her practice in the areas of environmental law, environmental litigation, and environmental policy issues.
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