Habitat Conservation Planning


Originally published in Linkages, A publication of the Institute for Ecological Health. Fall 1997.

By Tara L. Mueller

Director, Biodiversity Legal Program

Environmental Law Foundation, Oakland, CA

Multi-species habitat conservation plans (HCPs) have become the preferred, if not the sole, mechanism for balancing endangered species conservation with economic growth on private lands. In practice, however, multi-species HCPs are literally paving the way for species' eventual extinction. HCPs remove existing legal barriers to development of imperiled species' habitat and lock in unsustainable levels of growth and resource extraction and highly inadequate species mitigation measures. At the same time, HCPs shift the entire future burden of protecting species and habitat from those responsible for impacts to these species to the federal and state taxpayers, while offering little long term conservation benefits in return.

In an HCP development of endangered species habitat is authorized if the project proponent prepares a conservation plan that outlines mitigation measures sufficient to ensure that the species will be better off, and at least no worse off, than before the development occurred.

On a large scale, habitat conservation planning offers potential opportunities to conduct scientifically based, landscape level, ecosystem planning by protecting the most biologically valuable habitat, providing crucial migration corridors, reducing habitat fragmentation and increasing habitat connectivity.

But to date these ideals have rarely, if ever, been achieved. The basic problem: HCPs are political, not scientific documents, whose biological integrity depends entirely upon the political influence of the plan proponent, the political will of the approving wildlife agency, and the backbone of the environmental community (who may or may not even be offered a seat at the table). This basic problem is compounded by the fact that HCPs are driven by a permit process which requires federal and state wildlife agencies to authorize the destruction, not conservation, of species and habitat - a fundamentally flawed mechanism for achieving species and habitat protection goals.

The HCP process also is fraught with numerous procedural inadequacies. HCPs are typically prepared by industry or local government consultants, with little or no independent scientific

input, and often based on minimal scientific information. Not one HCP approved to date has been scientifically peer reviewed. Many HCPs are negotiated by government and permit applicant behind closed doors. By the time the draft HCP and environmental documentation are circulated for a brief period of public review, the "deal" has already been made.

HCPs approved or prepared to date fall far short of standards necessary to ensure the continued

survival, let alone recovery, of imperiled species. For example, HCPs do not usually include measurable biological criteria or species-specific management actions and mitigation measures. The do not quantify the level of take expected to occur, or adequately account for cumulative impacts to species across their range. Most approved HCPs permit immediate take and significant net losses of biologically valuable occupied habitat in exchange for vaguely defined management of marginal habitat set asides. HCPs also contain ineffective monitoring programs that evaluate only general habitat conditions, and not population trends, for a few indicator species. Some HCP mitigation programs simply rely on mere compliance with existing law, or on uncertain federal land management actions. In response to landowners' unsupported claims of financial infeasibility, federal wildlife agencies further reduce HCP mitigation requirements to those that are "practicable." Funding for critical land and water acquisitions and future monitoring and adaptive management programs usually is not assured.

But perhaps the most problematic aspect of HCPs is the Clinton Administration's controversial "no surprises" policy. This policy locks in the inadequate species protection measures in HCPs, relieving landowners of any future obligation to provide additional meaningful mitigation measures, for decades of time. Instead, federal and state taxpayers bear this burden.

The problem is that no money has been or is likely to be set aside for the federal and state governments to meet this substantial new obligation. So the species themselves bear the risk of an inadequate HCP, directly contrary to the purpose of the ESA. Although the no surprises policy is very likely illegal under the current ESA, environmentalists have yet to challenge the policy on substantive grounds.

In sum, the promise of HCPs as the panacea for endangered species conservation on non-federal lands has not materialized. Instead, as currently implemented, HCPs are highly likely accelerate species extinctions by absolving non-federal landowners of virtually all responsibility for protecting imperiled species in exchange for minimal conservation actions. In order for HCPs to achieve their purported goal of balancing the needs of vanishing wildlife and habitat with ever

increasing growth and resource extraction, they must incorporate far more meaningful biological protections for species and far fewer regulatory assurances for developers and industries.

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