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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Frequently Asked Questions


Critical Habitat & the

Coastal California Gnatcatcher

Q. What is the coastal California gnatcatcher?

The coastal California gnatcatcher is a small, insect-eating bird that ranges from southern California to northwestern Baja California, Mexico. Coastal California gnatcatchers typically occur in or near sage scrub at elevations of less than 2,500 feet. Once considered locally common, coastal California gnatcatcher populations declined significantly by 1960 because of widespread destruction and fragmentation of its habitat. Brown-headed cowbirds, a nest parasite, have also caused problems for the gnatcatcher. On March 30, 1993, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) listed the species as threatened, under the Endangered Species Act (Act).

Q. What is sage scrub?

Sage scrub is a broad category of vegetation that includes a number of plant communities such as Venturan coastal sage scrub, Diegan coastal sage scrub, succulent scrub, Riversidean alluvial fan scrub, and coastal sage chaparral scrub. The majority of plant species found within sage scrub communities are low-growing, summer deciduous, or succulent plants such as California sagebrush, various sages, California buckwheat, and cacti. The coastal California gnatcatcher uses sage scrub for foraging, nesting, rearing of young, roosting, and shelter. Gnatcatchers may also use other nearby plant communities, such as chaparral, grassland and riparian areas for dispersal and foraging.

Q. What is critical habitat?

Critical habitat is defined as specific areas that have been found to be essential to the conservation of a federally listed species, and which may require special management considerations or protection. Critical habitat is determined using the best available scientific and commercial information about the physical and biological needs of the species. These needs include:

  • space for individual and population growth, and for normal behavior.
  • food, water, light, air, minerals or other nutritional or physiological needs.
  • cover or shelter.
  • sites for breeding, reproduction, and rearing of offspring.
  • habitat that is protected from disturbance or is representative of the historical geographic
  • and ecological distribution of a species.

Q. Does the designation of critical habitat create preserves?

No. The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area. It does not allow government or public access to private lands and will not result in closure of the area to all access or use.

Q. What happens if my private property is designated critical habitat for the gnatcatcher?

The designation of critical habitat on privately owned land does not mean the government would like to acquire or control the land. Activities on private lands that do not require Federal permits or funding are not affected by a critical habitat designation. Critical habitat does not require landowners to carry out any special management actions or restrict the use of their land. However, the Act prohibits any individual from engaging in unauthorized activities that will harm listed wildlife.

If a landowner needs a Federal permit or receives Federal funds for a specific activity, the Federal agency would consult with the Service to determine how the action may affect the gnatcatcher or designated critical habitat.

Section 7 of the Act requires Federal agencies to consult with the Service on any activities they authorize, fund, or carry out which "may affect" a listed species, or "adversely modify" its designated critical habitat. Through this consultation process, the Service can ensure that permitted actions do not change (adversely modify) critical habitat in such a way that it no longer can meet the physical and biological needs of the species. Under non-critical habitat consultations, we conduct analyses to determine if actions are likely to jeopardize a listed species. Because of similarities in analysis standards we believe that projects which will not jeopardize a listed species will also not result in the adverse modification of critical habitat. The requirement to consult with the Service applies to all lands that have been identified as critical habitat where Federal agencies, permits or funding are involved.

Q. Is an economic analysis required as part of designating critical habitat?

Yes. The Service must take into account the economic impact of identifying any particular area as critical habitat. Unless the failure to designate an area as critical habitat would result in the extinction of the species, we may exclude an area from critical habitat if we determine that the benefits (economic and otherwise) of excluding it outweigh the benefits of including it. This determination is based on the best scientific, economic, and commercial information available.

Q. Is critical habitat designated for all listed species?

No. Critical habitat has been designated for 113 of the 1,168 species currently listed as threatened and endangered under the Act. The Act requires us to identify critical habitat at the time a species is listed. However, in some cases, designating critical habitat may be considered "not prudent" if it would cause harm to the species, such as increasing the possibility of vandalism or collection. We may find that such a designation is "not determinable" if we don't have enough information when a species is listed to define areas as critical habitat. Recently, there have been a number of lawsuits based on our failure to designate critical habitat and, as a result, by October 1, 2000, we must re-evaluate our previous decisions for 13 species in California for which we determined critical habitat was not prudent

Q. Why is critical habitat being proposed for the gnatcatcher now?

When we listed the coastal California gnatcatcher as a threatened species, we determined that designating critical habitat was not prudent, based on our knowledge of several instances of apparently intentional habitat destruction that occurred during the listing process. Additionally, most lands where gnatcatchers occur were in private ownership and had no activities that were federally funded or permitted; therefore, we did not believe the designation of critical habitat on those lands would be of benefit to the species.

A lawsuit was filed against the Service challenging our prudency decision not to designate critical habitat for the coastal California gnatcatcher. A summary judgement was granted in our favor, but was appealed. On May 21, 1997, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court (Court) ordered us to issue a new decision about the prudency of designating critical habitat for the gnatcatcher. We published a notice of determination in the Federal Register on February 8, 1999, finding that critical habitat designation was prudent for the gnatcatcher.

The Court subsequently ordered us to publish a proposed determination of critical habitat by October 4, 1999. As a result of problems delineating critical habitat using the criteria contained in the February 1999 revised prudency determination, we requested and received a 120-day extension to re-evaluate the criteria and publish the proposed critical habitat determination. We were given the final deadlines of January 30, 2000, to publish a proposed critical habitat rule, and September 30, 2000, to publish a final determination on critical habitat. The date for the publication of the proposed rule was later extended to February 7, 2000.

Q. Why is critical habitat for the gnatcatcher now considered prudent?

After re-evaluating the threats to the species from possible vandalism, we find that these risks to the gnatcatcher and its habitat from specific acts of destruction do not outweigh the broader educational, and potential regulatory and other possible benefits that a designation of critical habitat would provide for this species.

Q. In the Notice of Determination published on February 8, 1999, the Service considered only

124,000 acres to be prudent for critical habitat. Why is the Service now proposing to

designate critical habitat on nearly 800,000 acres?

The Notice of Determination published on February 8, 1999, included only those lands where a federally funded or permitted activity already existed or was likely to exist. In re-evaluating the criteria for considering critical habitat for this species, we have concluded that it is not reliable to determine critical habitat on the basis of existing or possible future Federal funding or permits. Instead, we have used a broad landscape approach to proposing critical habitat for the gnatcatcher. This approach identifies lands essential to the conservation of the gnatcatcher, regardless of whether there is, or may be, Federal involvement through land ownership, permitting, or funding.

Q. What about lands already being conserved through Habitat Conservation Plans? Why are these areas being excluded?

All lands within approved HCPs where incidental take has been authorized are excluded from the areas proposed as critical habitat, because these lands were determined, during the HCP analysis, not to be essential to the conservation of the gnatcatcher. Lands designated as reserves, preserves, or other conservation areas within approved HCPs receive special management protections through the HCPs. Therefore, these lands are not being proposed because they do not meet the definition of critical habitat, in that they do not require additional management considerations or protection.

Q. What about lands where regional HCPs are being developed or will be developed in the future?

The proposed designation of critical habitat should not impede ongoing habitat conservation planning efforts in southern California. The long-term conservation of the gnatcatcher is being addressed as these plans are developed. During the comment period, the Service is particularly interested in comments from the public on how to address critical habitat within existing and future HCPs.

Q. How will any final designation of critical habitat affect activities for which a party has already consulted with the Service under section 7 of the Act?

Federal regulations require agencies to reinitiate consultation with the Service on previously reviewed actions if critical habitat is designated after the initial consultation and if those actions may affect critical habitat. This applies only if those agencies have retained some type of involvement or control over the action, or if such involvement is authorized by law.

Q. What happens if a project is reviewed as part of a reinitiation of consultation and the Service determines it will adversely modify critical habitat?

It is very unlikely that an activity that was reviewed and permitted by the Service under section 7 of the Act prior to the designation of critical habitat will be changed because critical habitat is now proposed for the area. When reviewing projects under section 7, we must determine if the proposed action will "jeopardize the continued existence" of a species by asking the question "will the project significantly reduce the likelihood of the species' survival and recovery?" A project that will "destroy or adversely modify" critical habitat is one that will significantly reduce the value of critical habitat for the survival and recovery of the species. Regardless of whether or not critical habitat has been designated, we must still consider the effect a project may have on the continued existence or recovery of a listed species.

Q. Will the public be given an opportunity to comment on proposed critical habitat for the coastal California gnatcatcher?

Yes. The Service wants to ensure that any final action resulting from this proposal will be as accurate and as effective as possible. We are actively soliciting comments or suggestions from the public, other government agencies, the scientific community, industry representatives, and any other interested party. In particular, we are seeking comments regarding:

  • how to deal with critical habitat within existing and future HCPs.
  • reasons why any habitat should or should not be designated critical habitat, including whether the benefits will outweigh any threats to the species resulting from critical habitat designation.
  • specific information on the number and distribution of gnatcatchers, what habitat is essential to the conservation of the species, why is it essential.
  • land use practices and current or planned activities in the proposed areas, and possible impacts of these actions on proposed critical habitat.

any foreseeable economic or other impacts resulting from the proposed designation of critical habitat; in particular, impacts to small entities or families.

economic or other values associated with critical habitat designation for gnatcatcher (e.g., hiking camping, bird-watching, improved air quality, increased soil retention).

Written comments and information on the proposed designation of critical habitat for the coastal California gnatcatcher will be accepted through April 7, 2000, and should be sent to Field Supervisor, Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office, 2730 Loker Avenue West, Carlsbad, California 92008.

We have also scheduled three hearings to give the public opportunities to provide oral and written comments on the proposed rule. The hearings are scheduled as follows:

Tuesday, February 15, 2000, from 1:00 to 3:00p.m. and 6:00 to 8:00p.m. at the Sheraton Anaheim Hotel, 1015 West Bell Road, Anaheim, California. This site was selected to ensure residents of Los Angeles and Orange counties have an opportunity to provide comment to the Service on this proposed action.

Thursday, February 17, 2000, from 1:00 to 3:00p.m. and 6:00 to 8:00p.m. at the San Diego Hilton Mission Valley, 901 Camino del Rio South, San Diego, California. This site was selected to ensure residents of San Diego County have an opportunity to provide comment to the Service on this proposed action.

Wednesday, February 23, 2000, from 1:00 to 3:00p.m. and 6:00 to 8:00p.m. at the Holiday Inn Select Riverside, 3400 Market Street, Riverside, California. This site was selected to ensure residents of Riverside and San Bernardino counties have an opportunity to provide comment to the Service on this proposed action.

All comments received, either written or oral, are given equal weight and will be considered during the decision-making process. Comments and materials received will be available for public inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours, at the Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office (phone: 760/431-9440).

Prepared by: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife
Prepared on: February 4, 2000

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