Protected Habitat Shrunk for U.S. Endangered Species

Downsized. The proposed critical habitat for the Cape Sable seaside sparrow was cut in half in 2007.

Lori Oberhofer, Everglades National Park

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) consistently disregarded scientific advice when determining how much land to protect for endangered species during the George W. Bush Administration, a new study shows. The analysis, which includes decisions made between 2002 and 2007, shows that the agency was much more likely to ignore expert advice to increase protected areas. Instead, the agency typically ended up cutting the amount recommended by scientists, often by a sizeable amount.

FWS is required to designate critical habitat when it puts an organism on the endangered species list, although it doesn't always do this unless sued by environmental organizations. A study in 2005 found that the conservation status of species with designated critical habitat was twice as likely to improve than the status of species without any designation.

Here's a snapshot of how the process works: Agency scientists rely on five biological criteria to determine whether land should be considered critical habitat, such as whether it was historically part of a species' range. Their recommendations are peer-reviewed by a panel of external scientists and put out for public comments before the agency makes a final decision.

During the Bush Administration, there were high-profile cases of political interference with the science involved in the designation of critical habitat. To get a broader view, Noah Greenwald and Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group in Tucson, Arizona, filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for peer reviews used by FWS to inform 42 designations of critical habitat.

Greenwald and Suckling found that of the 169 peer reviews, 85 recommended increasing the area for 36 designations. But more than 90% of the time, FWS ultimately decided to do the opposite. For 34 of these designations, they cut the amount of proposed habitat by an average of 43%—which added up to 4.9 million fewer hectares. FWS was more likely to listen to peer reviewers who recommended removing proposed areas of critical habitat for reasons such as because it had not been properly identified.

The findings are "pretty damning," says conservation biologist Karen Hodges of the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, in Canada, who was not involved in the research. "It's devastating that a federal agency responsible for endangered species is asking experts for advice and consistently ignoring that advice." She says the findings are consistent with a paper she published in 2008, which showed that FWS preferred using biological criteria, such as proximity to a nest or den, that tend to minimize the amount of critical habitat.

That's a problem, says Stuart Pimm of Duke University, who is one of the new study's co-authors. "It's very hard to imagine circumstances where less habitat translates to a better outcome" for a species, he says. Pimm has personal experience with having scientific advice overlooked. When FWS first proposed critical habitat for the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow, based on his 2 decades of research on the species, Pimm liked the map. But the final decision in 2007 removed half the proposed habitat. "They gutted it," he says. "It was totally counter to science."

FWS said it could not comment on specifics of the report without having reviewed it in depth, but offered this response: "The Fish and Wildlife Service is strongly committed to using the best available science to inform its policy decisions under the law. ... Scientists may not always agree on the conclusions of a scientific analysis, especially in analyses as complex and challenging as critical habitat designations. In some cases, peer reviewers may disagree; in others, our biologists may not agree with the conclusions of individual peer reviewers. Additionally, in the case of critical habitat, the law gives us the authority to consider other factors when making final designations, including economic considerations and new information we receive through public review and comment."