Author: Damien M. Schiff
This week, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service issued a new designation of critical habitat for the ESA-protected bull trout. The designation comes after a successful lawsuit in federal district court in Oregon brought by environmental groups, Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Allen, challenging the earlier, smaller, Bush Administration designation. The environmentalists' main gripe with the prior designation was that the Service did not designate any "unoccupied" areas as critical habitat. In this week's designation, the Service has done a dramatic about-face, designating over 800 miles of streams and thousands of acres of lakes and reservoirs as unoccupied critical habitat. The Service's actions are especially remarkable when one considers that the standard for designating unoccupied critical habitat is much higher than the standard for designating occupied critical habitat; in fact, the Service must demonstrate that an unoccupied area is essential to the species's conservation. The Service couldn't do that 5 years ago; how can it manage that finding now?
Another interesting and troubling point is that the Service's economic impact analysis for the new designation adopts the inadequate "baseline" approach, whereby the agency can ignore the designation's cumulative economic impact. Do you think that the environmentalists (and officials within the Service) would be concerned about conducting environmental assessments without a cumulative impacts approach? Of course! Yet why the same approach should not be taken with economic impacts is, unfortunately, an unsurprising inconsistency.