Watershed, Winter 2001
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
by Rick Farris

Rick Farris is a senior ecologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura

Late in the 19th Century, Americans realized that our fish and wildlife populations were declining at alarming rates. Species which had once been common, such as the passenger pigeon, had nearly vanished, and others were being pushed toward extinction. Scientists, hunters, anglers, and concerned citizens joined in an effort to restore and sustain our biological heritage. This national concern for conserving fish, wildlife and plants was the genesis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It continues to this day as stated in the Service's motto:

"The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people."

Saving Endangered Species

One of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's main functions is the identification and recovery of endangered species. The Service, in a role legislated by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), leads the federal effort to protect and restore animals and plants that are in danger of extinction both in the United States and worldwide.

The ESA directs the Service to use the best scientific evidence available to identify species that are "endangered", meaning they are faced with extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range. Species identified as "threatened" are those at risk of becoming "endangered" in the foreseeable future. After review by scientists and the public, species may be placed on the Department of the Interior's "List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants." More than 700 native species are currently on the list.

Service biologists work with scientists from other federal and state agencies, universities, and private organizations to develop "recovery plans" that identify actions needed to save listed species and restore their numbers. Such programs have already helped save the American alligator, bald eagle, and the California gray whale, species that only recently appeared headed for oblivion. Many other species still face a long and difficult road to recovery.

The ESA also mandates that, if it is prudent and determinable, critical habitat shall be designated concurrently with a the listing of a species. Critical habitat designations are not always prudent or determinable because the information needed to make a listing decision is often different than that necessary to designate critical habitat. Also, more data is needed for critical habitat than the data provided in a petition to list the species. Additionally, a critical habitat designation usually affords little extra protection to most species, and in some cases it can result in harm to the species. This harm may be due to negative public sentiment to the designation, to inaccuracies in the initial area designated, and to the fact that there is often a misconception among other federal agencies that areas outside the designated critical habitat area have no value to the species.

After a congressional moratorium on listing new species ended in 1996, the Service faced a huge backlog of species needing to be proposed for listing as threatened or endangered. For this reason, the Service assigned a relatively low priority to designating critical habitat because it believed that a more effective use of limited staff and funding has been to place imperiled species on the List of Endangered and Threatened Species.

A critical habitat designation does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other special conservation area. It does not allow government or public access to private lands and does not close areas to all access or use. Regardless of any critical habitat designations, federally listed endangered or threatened wildlife species are protected from take or harm. The advantages of critical habitat are that it focuses attention on areas that are essential to the conservation of a species and helps ensure federal agencies are aware of their obligation to consult with the Service on federal activities that may affect the long-term survival of the species. If a federal action may affect the species or its critical habitat, the federal action agency must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

After an analysis of the project and its impacts, the Service renders a "biological opinion" on the proposed federal action as to whether it will jeopardize the continued existence of the species or adversely modify designated critical habitat. The Service recommends ways for projects to avoid and minimize harm to endangered species. Most projects proceed with little or no modification because many of the adverse effects can be avoided through early discussions among the action agency, applicant, and the Service.

The Service has put increased emphasis on two provisions of the ESA in recent years -- Habitat Conservation Plans and Special 4(d) Rules. These provisions are designed to avoid or resolve conflicts between private development projects and the protection of an endangered species. If a private development project is considered to have potentially harmful effects on an endangered species, the project proponent must apply for an incidental take permit. The issuance of an incidental take permit requires the applicant to prepare a Habitat Conservation Plan which includes long-term measures to protect the species while allowing the development to proceed. Under a 4(d) rule, the Secretary of the Interior may waive some prohibitions concerning threatened species by making special provisions that may allow some activities potentially harmful to some individuals of a species if measures are taken to provide for the species' overall, long-term protection.

Other Fish and Wildlife Service Programs

The Service manages the 93-million acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of 531 refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management assistance offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the ESA, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies.


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