The Obama administration today released a final policy to guide government scientists in determining whether wildlife species deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act, making a substantive change to a draft policy released 2½ years ago.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service policy will dictate when wildlife is granted federal protection and, if so, where.
The legally binding policy, which takes effect in about a month, offers guidance for interpreting when a critter is in danger of extinction "throughout all or a significant portion of its range," a key, albeit oft-debated, phrase in the 1973 law.
It specifically applies to situations in which a species is not imperiled throughout all its range but is in trouble in a vital portion of it.
The agencies' draft policy issued in late 2011 would essentially have raised the threshold for when a species is considered to be threatened or endangered in a "significant portion" of its range (Greenwire, Dec. 8, 2011).
It read: "A portion of the range of a species is 'significant' if its contribution to the viability of the species is so important that, without that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction."
The final phrase will read: "A portion of the range of a species is 'significant' if the species is not currently endangered or threatened throughout all of its range, but the portion's contribution to the viability of the species is so important that, without the members in that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction, or likely to become so in the foreseeable future, throughout all of its range."
The agencies said they will seldom need to determine whether a species is endangered or threatened in a "significant" portion of its range. But when species are found to meet that threshold, protection will be given "to all individuals of the species wherever found."
It was not immediately clear whether the final definition would result in more or fewer species qualifying for federal protections.
The final policy defines species' "range" as the lands or waters in which the species are currently found, a provision likely to irk wildlife advocates who have lobbied for the agencies to also consider protecting species' historical range.
"The purpose of this policy is to develop a joint interpretation of 'significant portion of its range' to reduce inconsistencies in applying the phrase and to improve effective and efficient implementation of the act," the agencies said in a Federal Register notice set to be published next week. "The services need to ensure that the policy is consistent with the plain language and mandates of the act, is consistent with case law, provides clarity as to both the meaning and consequences of the SPR phrase so that the Services will be accorded deference when they apply the interpretation in making status determinations, and furthers the conservation purposes of the act."
According to the notice, the final policy differs from the draft in order to "remove problems associated with allowing a species to qualify as both threatened throughout its range and endangered throughout an SPR" and would also "lower and simplify the threshold for 'significant.'"
The final policy will be closely scrutinized by wildlife advocates, energy companies, ranchers and developers in addition to lawmakers of both parties. Once a species is listed, it typically takes many years until federal protections are lifted.
Listings make it illegal to harm or kill a species. If critical habitat is designated, those lands can neither be destroyed nor adversely modified.
In general, environmental groups found some provisions to like -- but far more to dislike -- in the draft policy, which is seen as requiring species to meet a higher threshold for protections.
In addition, the draft defined the range of a species to be that which is occupied at the time of listing, which essentially meant that lost historical range that often accounts for a majority of a species's suitable romping grounds did not fully count.
The final policy does not appear to differ in this respect.
The National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition, which includes farmers, cities and counties, rural irrigators, electric utilities, forest product companies, homebuilders, agricultural interests and mining companies, said of the draft policy that it "agrees with and supports the Services' use of a high threshold, with a basis in biological conditions, for determination of a portion of a range as 'significant.'"
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