The federal government may not deem an area with imperiled plants and animals to be a “critical habitat” if doing so would cause economic harm or national security problems, under proposed rules announced Friday.
The announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sparked the ire of environmental groups that fear the proposal would further harm species on the brink of extinction, especially as climate change affects their habitats.
The proposed rules would affect how the Fish and Wildlife Service decides what land could be excluded from a critical habitat designation. The plan appeared in a Federal Register pre-publication notice. A 30-day public comment period begins next week.
Under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat is essential to an imperiled species’ survival and may restrict development on federal lands, such as oil and gas drilling and mining. The Interior Department, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, can exclude land from critical habitat under certain circumstances.
Interior’s secretary could consider whether protecting a declining species under a critical habitat designation would lead to lost jobs, national security challenges, or restrictions on outdoor recreation, according to the notice.
The critical habitat regulations come as the Fish and Wildlife Service considers what “habitat” means. The 1973 law didn’t define it, so the agency in July proposed possible definitions that federal courts have said are needed.
Seventeen state attorneys general, including California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), on Friday spoke outagainst the proposed “habitat” definition, saying it would reduce the ability of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to designate critical habitat.
The goals of the proposed critical habitat rules are to be more transparent to the public and help people understand how they’ll be affected by the Endangered Species Act in a more predictable way, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a statement Friday.
The agency didn’t immediately respond to questions about the provisions of the proposed rules and what problems they aim to solve.
The proposal shows how officials could factor in economic impacts, national security, public health, and community interests in leaving critical habitat unprotected, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its statement.
“For example, a local community could propose an exclusion because the area is the site of a planned hospital or school. In that case, the Service would determine whether the benefits of building the hospital or school outweigh the benefits of including the area as part of the critical habitat,” the agency said.
The proposed rules would reverse an Obama administration policy that barred excluding federal public lands from critical habitat designations, said Jason Rylander, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group.
“Permittees and licensees on federal land would get to demand that FWS review proposed critical habitat designations for economic impact,” Rylander said. “That has significant impacts for public land management which holds a special responsibility for species protection.”
The rules also would give greater weight to state and local government claims that protecting critical habitat on federal land would have an undue economic impact, he said.
“This could elevate speculative economic claims over the needs of imperiled species,” Ryalnder said.