- ES Home
- What We Do
- Candidate Conservation
- Listing and Critical Habitat
- For Landowners
- About Us
- FWS Regions
- Laws & Policies
- For Kids
- Candidate Conservation
- Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs)
- Foreign Species
- Listing and Critical Habitat
- Working With Tribes
- Partnerships in Conservation
Habitat Conservation Plans | Learn More | Scientific Study
The Service applauds the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis for undertaking an in-depth analysis of the scientific data used in Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs). The final manuscript makes sound recommendations to the Service for improving HCPs. We appreciate these suggestions and will take them under consideration. The Service already has incorporated many of the recommendations into the development of new HCPs. Some of these recommendations coincide with amendments to our HCP Handbook that will be published in the Federal Register shortly.
Nevertheless, we do not agree with the report's conclusion that the Service lacks adequate scientific data and analysis to support many of the approved HCPs. We believe that the 233 HCPs currently in place are based on sound science. If we lack critical information regarding the biological needs of a species proposed to be covered under an HCP, we will not approve the plan until such information is obtained or an acceptable adaptive management clause is added to the HCP.
In the summer of 1997, AIBS/NCEAS began an in-depth study that sought to measure the availability, use and analysis of scientific data in HCPs. The project involved a team of 106 graduate students and 13 faculty advisors from eight universities, and had representatives from all areas of conservation sciences. The team gathered data on 208 approved HCPs to obtain basic information on their contents and conducted a detailed analysis of a representative set of 43 HCPs as case studies, using questionnaires focused on both plans and species. The study did not attempt to judge the quality of HCPs but limited itself to an analysis of whether the data supporting HCPs were scientifically adequate. AIBS/NCEAS divided the analysis into five stages: species status; analysis of incidental take, biological impact of incidental take; mitigation (including avoidance, minimization, and mitigation measures); and monitoring.
What are No Surprises assurances?
No Surprises assurances are provided by the government through the section 10(a)(1)(B) process to non-Federal landowners. Essentially, private landowners are assured that if "unforeseen circumstances" arise, the Services will not require the commitment of additional land, water or financial compensation or additional restrictions on the use of land, water, or other natural resources beyond the level otherwise agreed to in the HCP without the consent of the permittee. The government will honor these assurances as long as a permittee is implementing the terms and conditions of the HCP, permit, and other associated documents in good faith. In effect, this regulation states that the government will honor its commitment as long as the HCP permittees honor theirs.
Early this past summer, the Service reviewed and commented on the draft study. We provided factual corrections, missing data, and recommendations for improvement. We also addressed concerns about methodology and how information was gathered, analyzed, and used to arrive at the final conclusions. Most of our data corrections were made and many of our recommendations were incorporated into the final document. However, because of the short review time, large amounts of data to review, limited staff and large staff workloads, we were unable to review all of the information collected by AIBS/NCEAS. Therefore, not all of the information used in the final analysis was verified by the Service.
The Service believes many of the report's conclusions are a based on questionable methodology. The study applied a standard set of questions to each HCP that was not always relevant or applicable. For example, the study assumed that the Service should consider climate change data for all HCPs when the effects of climate change would not be necessary to determine the success of many HCPs. In addition, the AIBS/NCEAS reviewers may have overlooked relevant information in other documents the Service used when analyzing HCPs.
According to the study, the Service adequately addressed take of listed species in only 56 percent of the reviewed HCPs. Furthermore, the study stated that the Service did not fully analyze the impacts of take in many HCPs. We disagree. Predicting take is a statutory requirement. For an HCP to be approved, the applicant must include a "complete description of the activity sought to be authorized" and specify "the impact that will likely result from such taking."
Take can either be quantified by the number of individual species affected by an activity or the amount of habitat that will be lost. In many cases, quantifying habitat loss provides a better estimate of take because some species experience population fluctuations on a seasonal or temporal basis. Information regarding take and the effects of take may have been estimated in a way not readily captured by the questionnaire or the reviewer may not have understood the manner that take was estimated.
AIBS/NCEAS also may not have reviewed all the relevant documents. For example, the Service analyzes the actual amount, impact, and cumulative effects of take most thoroughly in the biological opinion prepared when issuing incidental take permits. It appears that this information may have been overlooked.
The study suggests that there are important gaps in the quality of the data underlying mitigation proposed in many HCPs. It concludes that given the uncertainty caused by such gaps, mitigation measure should be evaluated prior to the onset of take. While it is true that well-tested minimization and mitigation procedures would be most effective in reducing the overall impact to species, this usually is not practical.
The law requires the Service to use the best scientific information available at the time when evaluating an HCP. To meet this requirement, the Service consults with species experts, draws upon current ecological and conservation biology theory, and uses the best available ecological and biological information to develop mitigation measures. Service biologists gather data from a wide variety of sources, including scientific experts, federal, state and local agencies, peer-reviewed journals, professional organizations, and the general public. Much of the information used in the development of HCPs is peer-reviewed, providing a consistent, reliable and sound basis for decision-making. The Service also uses the best land management practices, information and appropriate tools (e.g., modeling, population viability analyses) available.
The amount and nature of mitigation included in an HCP is highly variable and should be commensurate with the proposed impacts. Often it is not practical for mitigation to precede take. For example, forest HCPs may require certain forest canopy or vegetation characteristics as mitigation measures that may not yet exist given the current age of the forest but will develop as the forest matures.
The study states that only 22 of the 43 plans reviewed had a clear monitoring program and that monitoring of HCPs is generally inadequate. The Service disagrees. The scope of a monitoring program must be commensurate with the proposed impacts, scope, and duration of an HCP. These vary widely. Low-impact activities covered by an HCP do not require the same degree of monitoring that a large-scale, regional HCP requires. The AIBS/NCEAS study failed to make this distinction. AIBS/NCEAS also may not have understood that specific monitoring tasks may be assigned to other entities, such as the state or tribal agencies, as long as the Service and parties responsible for implementing the HCP approve the monitoring assignment.
The applicant and Service may agree to include a general monitoring plan in an HCP but defer working out site-specific details until after an incidental take permit is issued to get a better idea of the monitoring regime needed.
HCPs are a work in progress. We are committed to continually improving the HCP process and welcome recommendations for strengthening the program. We believe that HCPs are one of the ways to conserve endangered species on private lands in the 21st century. As mentioned above, the Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service will soon propose amendments to our HCP Handbook, that will improve the HCP process by:
Establishing measurable biological goals and objectives. Biological goals and objectives were not required in HCPs, however, in the future they will be specified in all HCPs. These goals and objectives will provide clear guidance for both the applicant and the Service while developing appropriate species conservation through an HCP. Incorporating adaptive management into an HCP when there are significant biological data gaps or uncertainty. When an HCP incorporates an adaptive management strategy, the agreement would clearly state the range of possible adjustments and the circumstances under which these adjustments would be triggered. This provides additional flexibility in managing a species in the future. It also allows the applicant to assess the potential economic impacts of the adjustments before agreeing to the HCP.
Developing better monitoring strategies. Monitoring strategies will be improved and made more consistent to better determine whether a permittee is complying with the HCP, whether biological goals and objectives are being met, and whether adaptive management provisions should be triggered.
Increasing public participation in the HCP process. This would provide a minimum 60-day public comment period for most HCPs and a minimum 90-day comment period for most large-scale, regional, or exceptionally complex agreements. HCPs that qualify as low effect--i.e., those defined as involving minor or negligible effect on listed species, their habitats, or other environmental resources--would have a 30-day comment period.
Providing guidance on factors to consider in establishing the duration of incidental take permits. These factors include duration of the applicant's proposed activities, possible positive and negative effects on covered species, the extent of scientific and commercial data underlying the HCP's operating conservation program, the length of time necessary to achieve the benefits of the conservation program, and the extent to which the program incorporates adaptive management strategies.
What We Do
- Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs)
- Safe Harbor Agreements
- Candidate Conservation Agreements
- Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances
- Recovery Credits and Tax Deductions
- Conservation Banking
- Conservation Plans Database
- Information, Planning and Conservation System (IPaC)
- Recovery Online Activity Reporting System (ROAR)
- News Stories
- Featured Species
- Recovery Success Stories
- Endangered Species Bulletin
- Partnership Stories