U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service finalizes ‘habitat’ definition under Endangered Species Act

The PIOGA Press

(by Robert Stonestreet)

On December 16, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service adopted a final regulation to define the term “habitat” for use when designating “critical habitat” areas under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 85 Fed Reg 81411. The ESA already defines the term “critical habitat,” which in general means areas designated as essential to preserve or promote recovery of threatened or endangered species regardless of whether those species are actually present in the area. The term “habitat,” however, is not itself defined in the ESA or pre-existing regulations.

The Service proposed two potential “habitat” definitions in August 2020 for public comment. In the final rulemaking, the Service chose to adopt a “habitat” definition markedly different than the two definitions proposed for public comment back in August. The adopted definition reads 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.

According to the Service, abiotic means “derived from non-living sources such as soil, water, temperature, or physical processes” and the term biotic means “derived from living sources such as a plant community type or prey species.” The preamble portion of the Federal Register entry notes that the phrase “resources and conditions” is intended to clarify that habitat “is inclusive of all qualities of an area that can make that area important to the species.”

Compare that definition to the two definitions proposed for public comment on August 5, 2020, which appear below:

     Primary Proposed Definition: The physical places that individuals of a species depend upon to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas with existing attributes that have the capacity to support individuals of the species.

     Alternate Proposed Definition: The physical places that individuals of a species use to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas where individuals of the species do not presently exist but have the capacity to support such individuals, only where the necessary attributes to support the species presently exist.

The Service noted that the revised version of the adopted definition takes into account the approximately 48,000 public comments submitted to the agency.

This rulemaking was a response to litigation over what areas the Service could designate as critical habitat that is not occupied by a listed species. Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, 139 S. Ct. 361 (2018). In Weyerhaeuser, the Service designated an area as critical habitat for a species even though that species could not survive in the area under current conditions. The Service reasoned that the area was once occupied by the species, and certain modifications could be made in the future that would allow the species to return to the area. The United States Supreme Court ruled that the Service could not designate an area as critical habitat for a listed species that was not “habitat” for that species in the first place―i.e. an area where the species could survive.

The Service seems to acknowledge that the adopted “habitat” definition would preclude the type of designation at issue in Weyerhaeuser. In response to comments that the proposed definition would improperly preclude areas that require restoration from being designated as critical habitat, the Service noted that “habitat, whether occupied or unoccupied, must still have (currently or periodically) the resources and conditions necessary to support one of the life processes for the species.” According to the Service, “the definition respects the statutory text by distinguishing between habitat and areas that are not habitat (but can become habitat in the future, whether by virtue of restoration activities or because of other changes).”

The regulation becomes effective on January 15 and will apply only to proposed critical habitat rulemakings published in the Federal Register after that date.

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