Critical Habitat under the Endangered Species Act

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes an animal or plant for listing as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), we identify specific areas that contain the physical or biological features essential to its conservation. This is the species’ critical habitat. The ESA requires the Service to designate critical habitat when it is both “prudent and determinable.”

Critical habitat is a tool that supports the continued conservation of imperiled species by guiding cooperation within the Federal government. Designations affect only federal agency actions or federally funded or permitted activities.

For Private Landowners and Citizens

Critical habitat designations do not affect activities by private landowners if there is no federal “nexus”— that is, no federal funding or permits required to carry out the activity.

Identifying critical habitat informs landowners and the public which specific areas are important to a species’ conservation and recovery. It also raises awareness of the habitat needs of imperiled species and focuses efforts of our conservation partners.

Designation of critical habitat does not:

  • Affect land ownership;
  • Allow the government to take or manage private property;
  • Establish a refuge, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area;
  • Allow government or public access to private land.
A brown frog with big round eyes blends in to the soil.

All critical habitat for the guajón, or Puerto Rican cave frog, is found on private lands. Photo by JP Zegarra, USFWS.

For Federal Agencies

Under Section 7 of the ESA, all federal agencies are required to use their authorities to help conserve imperiled species. The helps to ensure that the Federal government does not contribute to the decline of endangered and threatened species or their potential for recovery.

Federal agencies are prohibited from destroying or adversely modifying designated critical habitat. This means they must consult with the Service about actions that they carry out, fund, or authorize to ensure that they will not destroy or adversely modify critical habitat.

Even when there is no critical habitat designation, federal agencies are required fulfill their conservation responsibilities by consulting with the Service if their actions “may affect” listed species.

DOI Secretary Jewell and FWS director Ashe present Army Corps of Engineers with an award

The Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for interagency work to conserve the Interior least tern. Photo by Tami Heileman, DOI.

Critical Habitat and Land Development

Critical habitat does not prevent all development or other activities that occur in a designated area.

Only activities that involve a federal permit, license, or funding, and are likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat will be affected. If this is the case, the Service works with the agency and landowners to amend the project to enable it to proceed without adversely affecting critical habitat. Most federal projects are likely to go forward, but some may be modified to minimize harm.

For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may schedule a beach renourishment project (adding sand to a beach to stabilize it) before or after the nesting season of sea turtles to avoid harm to the sea turtles, their eggs, or their hatchlings.

Determining Critical Habitat

Biologists consider physical and biological features that a species needs for life processes and successful reproduction. These features include:

  • Space for individual and overall population growth, and for normal behavior;
  • Cover or shelter;
  • Food, water, air, light, minerals, or other nutritional or physiological requirements;
  • Sites for breeding and rearing offspring, germination, or seed dispersal;
  • Habitats that are protected from disturbances or are representative of the historical geographical and ecological distributions of the species.
A biologist takes notes in the foreground as two other biologists wait in the background

A biologist takes notes in the field. Photo by Gary Peeples, USFWS.

Designating Critical Habitat

First, the Service proposes designation of critical habitat for a species in the Federal Register with a request for public comments. We may modify a proposal as a result of information provided in those comments.

We may propose to designate critical habitat for a species at the same time that we propose to list the species, or we can address a species’ critical habitat up to one year after the date of its listing.

We base our final designation of critical habitat on the best scientific data available, after taking into consideration the probable economic and other impacts of the designation. After reviewing the comments, the Service responds to them and publishes a rule, including final boundaries, in the Federal Register.

Critical Habitat Exclusions

An area may be excluded from critical habitat designation based on:

  • Economic impact;
  • Impact on national security;
  • Any other relevant impact, if the Service determine that the benefits of excluding it outweigh the benefits of including it, unless failure to designate the area as critical habitat may lead to extinction of the species.

The Service can also make a determination not to designate critical habitat when a designation would likely increase the threat of collection, vandalism, or incidental habitat degradation by curiosity seekers. Such is the case with the rock gnome lichen, a plant species found in only 35 sites in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Questions?

Please contact us with your critical habitat questions.