Frequently Asked Questions [Archive]
Service Proposed Designation of Terrestrial Critical Habitat
for the Northwest Atlantic Population of Loggerhead Sea Turtles
Q: What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking?
A: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing to designate portions of island and mainland coastal beaches in six states along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico as critical habitat for the Northwest Atlantic (NWA) population of loggerhead sea turtles.
Q: What areas are proposed for critical habitat designation for the NWA population of loggerhead sea turtles?
A: In total, 90 nesting sites in coastal counties located in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi were identified for possible designation as critical habitat for the NWA population of loggerhead sea turtles. These sites incorporate about 740 shoreline miles: about 48 percent of an estimated 1,531 miles of coastal beach shoreline, and consist of nesting sites with or immediately adjacent to locations with the highest nesting densities (approximately 84 percent of the documented nesting) within these six states.
For a detailed list of counties, estimated shoreline miles within each unit and other information, please see materials on the proposed rule archive page
Q: How is critical habitat defined?
A: Critical habitat is a term in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that identifies geographic areas containing features essential for the conservation of a listed species and which may require special management considerations or protection. Specifying the location of habitat essential for the conservation of the species helps federal agencies identify where to utilize their authorities to benefit listed species. The designation also helps focus the conservation efforts of other conservation partners, such as state and local governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals. Go here for more details: http://www.fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/critical-habitats.html
However, a critical habitat designation does not signal that habitat outside the designated area is unimportant or may not be needed for recovery of the species. Loggerhead sea turtles and their habitat are fully protected under the ESA wherever they occur. Federal agencies will continue to consult with the Service on any action they conduct, fund and/or permit that might affect the species regardless of location or designation and the taking of any individual of the species, including taking caused by actions that affect habitat, is still prohibited without a federal permit. Go here for more details: http://www.fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/consultations-overview.html
When critical habitat is designated, this responsibility broadens to include consideration of any destruction or adverse modification to critical habitat that could result from the proposed federal action. Designating critical habitat also provides non-regulatory benefits by informing the public of areas that are important to the species' recovery and identifying where conservation actions would be most effective.
Designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge or preserve. A critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits, or activities are involved.
Q: Why is critical habitat being proposed for the NWA population of loggerhead sea turtles?
A: The areas identified in this proposal are critically important nesting sites where the highest concentration of nesting occurs within North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. The proposed areas include beaches adjacent to the high density nesting beaches to support population expansion. Under the ESA, critical habitat must be designated for any listed species to the maximum extent prudent and determinable. Such designations of critical habitat can only be completed by issuing a rule.
In September 2011, the Service and NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) jointly published a final rule revising the loggerhead’s listing from a single worldwide threatened species to nine distinct population segments (DPS) listed as either endangered or threatened species (76 FR 58868). The Northwest Atlantic DPS of loggerhead sea turtle is listed as a threatened species.
At that time, the Service and NMFS lacked the comprehensive data and information necessary to identify and describe physical and biological features of the terrestrial and marine habitats of the loggerhead and found critical habitat to be “not determinable.”
Since then, Service biologists completed reviews of updated data, recently published journal reports and other information and identified the key terrestrial features and elements necessary to pursue a process for selecting areas to propose as critical habitat.
NMFS is reviewing specific areas in the marine environment as potential critical habitat for the DPS and, consistent with their distinct authority, may propose to designate such areas in a separate rulemaking.
Q: Does a critical habitat designation change protection under the ESA?
A: No. As a listed species under the ESA, loggerhead sea turtles are already protected wherever they occur, and federal agencies are required to consult on any action they conduct, fund and/or permit that might affect the species. The ESA requires the Service to identify the location of habitat essential for the conservation of the species, which the ESA terms “critical habitat.”
This identification helps federal agencies identify actions that may affect listed species or their habitat, and to work with the Service to avoid or minimize those impacts. Identifying this habitat also helps raise awareness of the habitat needs of imperiled species and focus the conservation efforts of other partners such as state and local governments, non-governmental organizations and individual landowners.
Only if an activity is authorized, funded or carried out by a federal agency will the agency need to work with the Service to help landowners avoid, reduce or mitigate potential impacts to listed species or their identified habitat.
Q: What terrestrial features or elements were identified as important to loggerhead sea turtle conservation?
A: Key elements identified include:
- Suitable nesting beach habitat that has (a) relatively unimpeded nearshore access from the ocean to the beach for nesting females and from the beach to the ocean for both post-nesting females and hatchlings and (b) is located above mean high water to avoid being inundated frequently by high tides.
- Sand that (a) allows for suitable nest construction, (b) is suitable for facilitating gas diffusion conducive to embryo development, and (c) is able to develop and maintain temperatures and a moisture content conducive to embryo development.
- Suitable nesting beach habitat with sufficient darkness to ensure nesting turtles are not deterred from emerging onto the beach and hatchlings and post-nesting females orient to the sea.
Q: What threats to terrestrial nesting beach habitat were identified?
A: For loggerhead sea turtle terrestrial habitat, primary threats were grouped into 12 categories: recreational beach use; beach driving; predation; beach sand placement activities; in-water and shoreline alterations; coastal development; artificial lighting; beach erosion (including as a result of natural disasters such as hurricanes); climate change; habitat obstructions; human-caused disasters and response to all types of disasters; and military testing and training activities.
Q: What process was used in selecting the proposed terrestrial critical habitat sites?
A: The key features important to loggerhead sea turtle conservation and nesting beach threats were considered for each of the four recovery units occurring within the United States as identified in the 2008 Recovery Plan for the Northwest Atlantic Population of the Loggerhead Sea Turtle: available at http://go.usa.gov/gbBP.
The selected primary beaches have the highest nesting densities within each of the four recovery units, have a good geographic spatial distribution that will help ensure the protection of genetic diversity, and collectively provide a good representation of total nesting.
The selected beaches adjacent to the primary high density nesting beaches can serve as expansion areas should the high density nesting beaches be significantly degraded or temporarily or permanently lost through natural processes or upland development.
Q: What does this proposal mean for those beach shorelines outside of critical habitat but where loggerhead sea turtles still nest?
A: Loggerhead sea turtles and their habitat are fully protected under the ESA wherever they occur; both inside and outside those areas proposed for designation as critical habitat. As such, federal agencies will continue to consult with the Service on any action they conduct, fund and/or permit that might affect the species. The NWA population of loggerheads occurs and continues to be protected in VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA and TX.
However, sea turtle beach habitat is dynamic, and species may move from one area to another over time. The Service recognizes that critical habitat designated at a particular point in time may not include all of the habitat areas that it may later determine are necessary for the recovery of the species. For these reasons, a critical habitat designation does not signal that habitat outside the designated area is unimportant or may not be needed for recovery of the species.
Also, areas that are important to the conservation of the species, both inside and outside the critical habitat designation, will continue to be subject to conservation actions implemented under the ESA, regulatory protections for federal agencies to ensure their actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species, and Section 9 of the ESA’s prohibitions on taking any individual of the species, including taking caused by actions that affect habitat. [See response to “Does a critical habitat designation change protection under the ESA” question for additional information.]
Q: What impacts would the designation of critical habitat for the NWA population of loggerhead sea turtles have on coastal landowners within or adjacent to these units?
A: For the most part, the regulated public would see negligible change in how the Service conducts business, now and in the future. The Service would continue to consult on projects federal agencies conduct, fund and/or permit that may impact loggerhead sea turtles, regardless of whether these projects occur in designated critical habitat or not.
Designation of critical habitat also does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge or preserve. Nor does it generally impact private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or permits.
Q: Can comments or information that is relevant to the Service’s critical habitat proposal be provided?
A: Yes. To ensure any final action resulting from this proposal is based on the best scientific data available, the Service is seeking information and comments from all stakeholders and the general public. However, comments simply offering support for or opposition to the proposed rule, while noted, are not used in determining a final action.
Also, the Service will seek peer review from independent specialists during the public comment period to ensure that the proposal is based on scientifically sound data and analyses.
A list of the specific types of information and comments being sought is provided in the “Information Requested” section of the proposed rule available via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov/ and at http://www.fws.gov/northflorida.
Q: How can comments or information be submitted?
A: Written comments and information concerning the proposal can be submitted by one of the following methods:
- Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. FWS–R4–ES–2012–0103; or
- U.S. mail or hand delivery: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R4–ES–2012–0103; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042–PDM;, Arlington, VA 22203.
The proposed rule publishes in the Federal Register on March 25, 2013. The Service invited citizens and organizations to provide comments on the proposal. That comment period closed May 24, 2013. All comments and information submitted are available to review at http://www.regulations.gov. Comments and information submitted via other means, such as email or faxes, and after the close of the comment period are not accepted.
Q: Are comments and information considered by the Service in making the final decision?
A: Yes. All comments and information are reviewed and given appropriate consideration as Service staff work through the final decision making processes. Stakeholders and the general public play an important role in helping the Service ensure any final actions are not only based on the best scientific and commercial information available, but also accurate and more effective. The Service has a history of producing final decisions and actions that reflect this invaluable input.
Q: Is the Service considering the possible economic impacts the proposed designation of critical habitat might have on coastal communities and landowners?
A: Yes. The Service is preparing a draft economic analysis of the proposed critical habitat that will be released for public review and comment at a later date, prior to any final action on this proposal.
Q: Where can more information on sea turtles conservation be found?
A: Visit the Service’s web site at http://www.fws.gov/northflorida.
Federal Register Notice for proposal- PDF version - 9.6MB
UTM Coordinates for nesting beachs included in the proposed critical habitat notice - PDF - 212KB
Transcript from Charleston, SC Public Hearing held 8/6/2013 - PDF - 585KB
Transcript from Wilmington, NC Public Hearing held 8/7/2013 - PDF - 115KB
Transcript from Morehead City, NC Public Hearing held 8/8/2013 -PDF - 205KB
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