Year in Review: An important year for wildlife policy

The past year was a significant one for wildlife policy. Here are some of the issues that were particularly important for wildlife and TWS priorities.

Reconsidering “habitat”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service released a new definition of the term “habitat” under the Endangered Species Act. According to the final rule, “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 Wildlife Society called an earlier proposed definition “too narrow and lacking appropriate consideration of the diverse ecological and broader legal considerations that must be examined when defining habitat.”

The ESA already included a definition for “critical habitat,” but a 2019 Supreme Court decision held that an area must first be identified as “habitat” before it can meet the definition of “critical habitat.”

The words “critical habitat” also come with a new understanding. The USFWS released a final rule updating its process of excluding areas from critical habitat designations for threatened and endangered species. This new rule adds details on how it will consider the impacts of designating an area, including economic and national security impacts. Other impacts the USFWS may consider include public health and safety, community interests and environment concerns, such as increased wildfire risk or invasive species management.

The Wildlife Society expressed concerns that the proposal could allow too many exclusions and that had “potential negative impact on wildlife professionals’ ability to advance the conservation of species listed under the ESA through science-based management and conservation.”

Migratory Birds

The USFWS released a final environmental impact statement concluding that a proposed rule reducing migratory bird protections will result in increased mortality. The analysis found that under the new rule — which limits the reach of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to exclude incidental take — bird mortality will increase over time as more entities cease use of best practices to prevent incidental take. The Wildlife Society opposed the proposed rule and argued that the Service’s initial analysis was inadequate.

The proposed rule would codify the administration’s interpretation that the law only applies to the intentional take of birds. The MBTA has traditionally been interpreted to also include unintentional — or incidental — take.

The Wildlife Society urged the agency to abandon the proposal. After a federal court struck down the Interior memo that the rule is based on, the Trump administration announced its intention to appeal. Proposed legislation would reaffirm the MBTA’s prohibition on incidental take.

Great American Outdoors Act

The Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law. The legislation is intended to fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provide money for federal maintenance of recreational infrastructure such as roads, trails and campsites.

The legislation would provide five years of funding for federal land and resource management agencies to perform deferred maintenance on federal lands and offer dedicated, permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Wildlife Society has long supported both pillars of this legislation.

Recovering America’s Wildlife Act

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act passed in the House of Representatives, an important victory in one of TWS’ major policy efforts.

The legislation had 185 cosponsors. Language authorizing the bill was included as part of a package of amendments to the House’s transportation and infrastructure package.

Header Image: A redhead duck (Aythya americana) runs across the water on takeoff at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS