A new habitat definition has been finalized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The final rule dictating how a habitat is determined will be used for identifying critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The updated definition will go into effect in 2021. There had previously not been a clear and decisive definition outlining what is to be considered a habitat under the ESA.
“Given that this will improve implementation of the Endangered Species Act and how stakeholders engage with it, we are very happy to announce this final definition of habitat,” Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a news release. “We look forward to continuing to improve and streamline regulations that support more effective conservation and inspired partnerships.”
A new definition had been released back in August, with several agricultural and environmental groups providing comment. The clarification became necessary after a 2018 Supreme Court case shed light on issues with how a critical habitat was to be evaluated. The final definition states that “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.” The new habitat definition will only apply to the rule-making process pertaining to critical habitat when a proposed rule is published after January 15, 2021. Previous designations of critical habitat will not be reevaluated under the newly finalized rule.
USFWS also released another rule which outlines how land is to be excluded from critical habitat designation. Beginning on January 19, 2021, USFWS will be able to consider excluding federal lands from receiving a critical habitat designation. The new rule also allows USFWS to consider several factors when evaluating federal land to be classified as critical habitat. USFWS can weight impacts on users of federal lands such as grazing permittees when making a decision about critical habitat.