U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Final Designation of Critical Habitat for Wintering Piping Plovers

Questions and Answers

On July 3, 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) announced its final decision to designate critical habitat for the piping plover on its wintering grounds. Critical habitat is a term used in the Endangered Species Act (Act) that refers to specific geographic areas that contain habitat features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species. These areas may require special management considerations or protection for the species.

The following Questions & Answers explain the final critical habitat designation for wintering piping plovers and what it means to you. Additional Questions & Answers were provided when the designation was proposed, and are on the Service's website (http://plover.fws.gov).

1. The acreage in the final designation of critical habitat for wintering populations of piping plover was decreased by 92 percent. Why?

In the proposed rule, a buffer of 500 meters, or 1640 feet, was established for all designated shoreline as a way of accounting for variations in coastline due to erosion and accretion. For the final rule, this ‘broad-brush' approach was abandoned in favor of using more precise written descriptions. Each unit is now defined by a precise textual description which includes only the habitat elements required by the piping plover. In general, this description includes the intertidal beaches, flats and/or associated dunes, extending down to the lowest low-tide mark. This descriptive methodology eliminates the need to account for coastline shifts on topographical maps, enabling the critical habitat units to be significantly scaled down in size from what was presented in the proposed rule. We believe this new methodology more accurately reflects the critical habitat needs for piping plovers.

2. Were other areas excluded?

One area, the Padre Island National Seashore, was excluded using the Secretary's discretionary authority in section 4(b)(2) of the Act. The Service received information about two management plans in place on Padre Island National Seashore that address protection and management issues for plover habitat. Because of these plans and the Service's economic analysis, Padre Island National Seashore was excluded. As a result, 35,706 acres were taken out of designation.

In addition, three units in Mississippi, two in Florida, and portions of 12 other units were not included in the designation based upon a lack of evidence that the habitat is regularly used by piping plovers. For example, the final designation of critical habitat on Marco Island in Florida was reduced 81 percent, down to 605 acres. This reflects data received during the comment period which showed that piping plovers are found at Marco Island only on Sand Dollar Island and Tigertail Beach County Park. All developed and potentially developable areas on the island have been excluded because they do not include habitat essential to plover recovery.

3. Was economics considered in the final decision?

As required under section 4(b)(2) of the Act, we considered economic and other relevant impacts prior to making a final decision on which areas to designate as critical habitat. The Service may exclude areas on the basis of economic impact or any other relevant impact if the Secretary determines that the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of specifying such areas as critical habitat. We may not exclude areas if such exclusion will result in the extinction of the species. Economics was a consideration in the exclusion of the Padre Island National Seashore as explained in Question 2.

4. What is the purpose of designating critical habitat?

Federal agencies are required to consult with the Service on actions they carry out, fund, or authorize to ensure that their actions will not destroy or adversely modify critical habitat. In this way, a critical habitat designation helps protect areas that are necessary for the conservation of the species. A critical habitat designation has no effect on situations where a Federal agency or action is not involved. Private landowners engaged in an activity on private land are affected only if their project requires a Federal permit or involves Federal funding.

5. Does this critical habitat designation provide more protection for the piping plover?

Yes, critical habitat may make Federal agencies, States, and the public more aware of the habitat needs of piping plovers. However, a critical habitat designation does not set up a preserve or refuge, and only affects activities with Federal involvement, such as Federal funding or a Federal permit. Since listed species and their habitats are protected by the Act whether or not they are in areas designated as critical habitat, Federal agencies already must consult with the Service whenever they take an action which might adversely affect a plover. As a result, the Service does not anticipate additional regulatory restrictions on either Federal or private activities because of the designation.

6. Did the Service designate any unoccupied habitat as critical habitat for the plover?

The Service designated no unoccupied habitat as critical habitat for the piping plover. Plover density on occupied critical habitat is low enough that the habitat can support increases in the plover population and is sufficient to recover the species. The decision to exclude unoccupied habitat is species specific; recovery of other species may warrant designating unoccupied habitat.

7. What impact will critical habitat designation have on beach use?

While piping plovers are frequently known to return to the same wintering beach each year, they are not necessarily tied to specific sites as they are when nesting or rearing young. Therefore, human activities are less of an issue in areas where the bird's winter. For this reason, we do not anticipate any beach closures or additional restrictions on recreational beach use in the wintering areas as a result of the critical habitat designation.

Concerns have also been expressed regarding the designation's impacts on beach replenishment and stabilization activities. The Service recognizes the need to continue these activities, and as part of the consultation process will work with public and private entities to avoid negative impacts of stabilization and replenishment efforts on piping plover populations.

8. How did the Service determine which areas to designate as critical habitat?

Biologists considered physical and biological habitat features, called "primary constituent elements," needed for life and population growth of the piping plover. These primary constituent elements include: space for individual and population growth and for normal behavior; cover or shelter; food, water, air, light, minerals, or other nutritional or physiological requirements; and habitats that are protected from disturbances or are representative of the historic geographical and ecological distributions of a species.

In determining areas that are essential to conserve the wintering population of piping plover, we solicited information from knowledgeable biologists and reviewed the available information pertaining to habitat requirements of the species. Areas that were identified in the approved recovery plans and current draft recovery plans as essential for the recovery of the species were used to initially suggest important areas. These areas were then further evaluated using site specific data. Sources of data included two international piping plover censuses carried out in January of 1991 and 1996, published reports, Christmas bird counts, and other data from surveys focusing on shorebird distribution and abundance. Those areas along the coast for which occurrence data indicate a consistent use or have documented use by piping plovers are included in this designation.

9. If a federally-funded or assisted project is located outside of the critical habitat boundary seen on the final maps, does that mean no consultation is required on piping plover?

No. Under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, Federal agencies must consult with the Service whenever they take, fund, or authorize any action that might adversely affect a piping plover, regardless whether the bird is located in an area of critical habitat.

10. Did the public have opportunities to comment on the proposed critical habitat designation of the piping plover?

The initial public comment period on this action was open from July 6, 2000 through September 5, 2000 (60 days). When the draft economic analysis of the proposal was completed, we extended the comment period until October 30, 2000 (65 FR 52691), and again until November 24, 2000 (65 FR 64414), for a total extension of 80 days. Finally, we reopened the comment period for 7 additional days (66 FR 11134) to accept further public comment on any and all aspects of the proposal and associated economic analysis. The public therefore had 147 days of open comment period on the proposed rule, and 87 days of open comment period on the draft economic analysis. This exceeds the statutory requirement of a minimum of 60 day for comment on a critical habitat proposal. Altogether 6, 013 comments were received.

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