USFWS proposes designating critical habitat for threatened birds

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released proposals designating critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act for two threatened bird species earlier this month.

Under a proposal rule published July 20, the USFWS would revise the critical habitat designated for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). The Trump administration had previously issued a final critical habitat designation in January, but the Biden administration put implementation of that rule on hold when it took office. The proposal released last week would set aside areas for the owl in Washington, Oregon and California.

In 2012, approximately 9.6 million acres were designated as critical habitat for the northern spotted owl. The rule published in January reduced that to about 6.1 million acres, removing 3,472,064 acres that had previously been included as part of the owl’s critical habitat.

Geographic areas are eligible for designation as critical habitat if they contain features essential to the conservation of an endangered or threatened species. Once designated, they receive special management and protection. Under the ESA, the Secretary of the Interior has the authority to exclude any particular area from a critical habitat designation if the benefits of excluding the area outweigh the benefits of its inclusion—so long as the exclusion will not result in the species’ extinction.

The new proposal would only remove about 200,000 acres from the 2012 rule, keeping over 9 million acres designated as critical habitat. In the proposed rule, the agency said the previous exclusions made in January “were premised on inaccurate assumptions about the status of the owl and its habitat needs particularly in relation to barred owls” and “undermined the biological redundancy of the critical habitat network by excluding large areas of critical habitat across the designation.”

The USFWS will accept comments on the proposed northern spotted owl critical habitat until Sept. 20.

Earlier in July, the USFWS proposed the designation of 649,066 acres of critical habitat across 13 states for the rufa red knot (Calidris canutus rufa). The critical habitat proposal includes occupied migration and wintering areas in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Due to threats including climate change and sea level rise, coastal development and shoreline stabilization, and reduced food availability at stopover areas, this small migratory shorebird was listed as a threatened species in 2015. A draft recovery plan was released earlier this year.

The USFWS will accept comments on the proposed rufa red knot critical habitat until Sept. 13. On Aug. 18, the USFWS will hold a virtual public informational meeting and hearing from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. EDT.

Read TWS’ Standing Position on Threatened and Endangered Species in the U.S. and Position Statement on the U.S. Endangered Species Act

Header Image: A proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would designate critical habitat for the rufa red knot, a threatened shorebird. Credit: Greg Breese/USFWS