Feds Cut Back Habitat for Snowy Plover
GRANTS PASS, Ore. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday announced that West Coast beach-front critical habitat for the threatened western snowy plover will be cut back by nearly 40 percent, continuing a Bush administration policy of reducing habitat protections for threatened and endangered species to reduce economic losses.
The bulk of the cutbacks came from beaches in California on Monterey Bay, Morro Bay and the San Diego Bay island city of Coronado, where a report had estimated that protecting nesting areas from development and human contact would cost nearly $200 million over the next 20 years due primarily to limiting recreation.
“The economic analyses are playing an increasingly significant role in determinations of critical habitat,” said Fish and Wildlife spokesman Al Donner in Sacramento, Calif. “That’s triggered by court decisions that have directed us to do more rigorous economic reviews of proposed critical habitat and their impacts.”
However, the court battle appears likely to continue. Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said they were likely to challenge the designation based on an internal Fish and Wildlife document questioning the validity of the economic analysis. Coos County Commissioner John Griffith, who initiated the lawsuit that triggered the new designation, said he was looking into reopening the case because too little habitat was withdrawn.
In recent weeks, the Bush administration has sharply reduced critical habitat designations for bull trout and Pacific salmon, and the issue is at the core of a rewrite of the Endangered Species Act being considered by Congress.
Since 1999, critical habitat designations have closed the dry sand portions of many miles of beaches to recreation during the nesting season, which runs from March through September. The tiny shore birds lay their eggs in a depression in open sand, where they are vulnerable to predators and people.
Only 28 major nesting areas remain for the estimated 2,600 snowy plovers that remain. Dunes have been overgrown by nonnative plants, making them unsuitable for nesting. Biologists have turned to killing predators, such as ravens and foxes, to improve nesting success.
Based on a lawsuit filed by Coos County in Oregon, which charged that the original economic analysis was inadequate, Fish and Wildlife agreed to reconsider its 1999 decision to protect 19,474 acres of federal, state and privately owned beach in 28 units in California, Oregon and Washington.
The new critical habitat designation, which takes effect Oct. 30, designates 12,145 acres in 32 units. California has 24 units covering 7,472 acres, Oregon five units covering 2,147 acres, and Washington three units covering 2,526 acres. That is down 38 percent from the 1999 designation and 30 percent from the 17,299 acres proposed for protection last December.
The final decision was made in the office of Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, Donner said.
All 2,859 acres removed for economic considerations were in California: two units on Monterey Bay, two on Morro Bay, and one at Silver Strand, Coronado, said Donner. Another 1,621 acres were removed from military bases in California, primarily Vandenberg Air Force Base near Ventura. And 615 acres were removed because other protections are in place.
Donner said additional acreage was removed because it was not occupied or unsuitable.
Griffith said he was glad the Bush administration had withdrawn some areas for economic considerations, but the designation had not gone far enough, because it did not withdraw the North Spit of Coos Bay.
“That’s what the law says they are supposed to do. It’s just that they didn’t go far enough,” Griffith said.
Griffith and Gary Page, co-director of wetlands for PRBO Conservation Science in Stinson Beach, Calif., both questioned whether the Bush administration had fully analyzed the public comments on the economic analysis before making the decision, because the comment period had closed less than two weeks ago.
PRBO Conservation Science, which works to build bird populations, had submitted comments saying the economic analysis failed to take into account economic benefits of protecting habitat, Page said.