WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated critical habitat for more than a hundred Hawaiian endangered or threatened species in the Maui Nui island cluster. Wednesday's action applies to 135 species on the islands of Molokai, Maui, Kahoolawe and Lanai that were listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in May 2013 or before.
Because no critical habitat was designated on the island of Lanai due to ESA exclusions for existing conservation agreements, ten species only occurring on that island were not provided with a habitat designation under the act. Habitat for the remaining 125 species has been designated or revised for a total of 157,002 acres across the other three islands in the Maui Nui complex. New habitat is designated for 50 species, and previously designated habitat is revised for 85 species.
The designation provides critical habitat for 122 plants, including a white hibiscus and a yellow hibiscus, which is the state flower, two forest birds, including the crested honeycreeper, and one tree snail.
The agency listed 38 species in May 2013 as part of a 2011 settlement agreement between the USFWS and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) conservation organization, a frequent litigant on behalf of endangered and threatened species. The settlement agreement outlined a multi-year workplan for the agency to speed listing decisions for a backlog of hundreds of species across the country.
The ESA mandates that critical habitat be designated for threatened or endangered species at the time of listing, or within one year, unless there are reasons that habitat is not determinable, or is outside the jurisdiction of the listing agency, or a designation would not add to the conservation of the species.
"Critical habitat will speed restoration efforts for many of these imperiled species so I'm glad to see that happen," Loyal Mehrhoff, CBD endangered species recovery director, said. "The Endangered Species Act continues to save hundreds of Hawaiian species from extinction and can be a significant force to save these species too." Hawaii has more endangered species than any other state, according to the group.
Of the habitat under consideration for designation, 84,892 acres were excluded due to conservation management agreements, and another 29,170 acres were excluded because they did not meet the criteria. A critical habitat designation identifies specific areas within a listed species' geographic range that are essential for its long-term survival.
"The Service listened to public and agency comments and amended the original proposed critical habitat based on the best scientific information and for the greatest protections for the resources," Mary Abrams, State Supervisor for the Service's Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office, said. "The areas excluded from the final designation are based on solid conservation agreements with local groups, which will protect threatened and endangered species while supporting land use. These conservation agreements demonstrate that threatened and endangered species can successfully coexist with the interests of private and public landowners."
However, the CBD expressed doubt regarding the long-term efficacy of local conservation agreements. "The lack of designated critical habitat for these species is a concern if the management agreements do not hold up or are ineffective," Mehrhoff said.
In recent years, the USFWS has emphasized both a partnership approach through various conservation arrangements with local groups and landowners, and an ecosystem approach to listing endangered and threatened species, and designating habitat for them, that acknowledges the need to protect ecological areas that may contain a number of at risk species, especially in Hawaii. For example, such ecosystem-based protections have been previously made for species on Hawaii's Big Island, and for species on other islands in the chain.
"By taking an ecosystem and partnering approach, conservation efforts can be leveraged and threats addressed more effectively while improving the ecological health of our islands, which benefit the people and the plants and animals. Many of these animals and plants are found nowhere else in the world and the Service looks forward to continuing to work with local governments, industry, our partners, and the people of Hawaii to learn more about what makes these islands so special," the agency said.
The final rule is effective April 29.
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