Feds Set Limited Cactus Habitat, Criticism Follows

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat for two endangered Arizona cacti Thursday, but it is little more than a third of the original proposal. The habitat designation comes almost three years after the acuña and the Fickeisen plains cacti were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in October 2013. According to the act, critical habitat is to be designated at the time of listing or within one year, if it is determinable.
     The listing was part of a multi-year settlement agreement hammered out between the Service and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBC) and its allies to speed listing decisions for hundreds of species that had languished in listing limbo, some for decades. The Service identified both cacti as possible candidate species in 1975 and they were designated as Category 1 species in 1990, according to the October 2012 proposed listing rule.
     The critical habitat initially proposed was for 49,186 acres for the Fickeisen plains cactus and 53,720 acres for the acuña cactus. The final designation is for 17,456 acres for the Fickeisen cactus and 18,535 acres for the acuña.
     “You can’t protect endangered species without protecting the places they live,” CBD’s Michael Robinson said. “So while I’m grateful for protection of critical habitat for these unique and beautiful cacti, I’m disappointed that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to protect all the areas scientists have identified as important for the plants’ recovery.”
     The Service said that 33,000 acres of proposed acuña habitat was removed because “they were not essential to the conservation of the plant.” Another 935 acres were exempted on the Barry M. Goldwater Range due to an approved Natural Resource Management Plan.
     For the Fickeisen cactus, 2000 acres of Forest Service land was determined to be unoccupied by the cactus, so was removed from consideration. Another 20,113 acres were excluded because they were on a ranch. “The Service determined exclusion of these lands from critical habitat is appropriate based on their philosophy and land ethic which has contributed to the existence of a large, reproducing Fickeisen plains cactus population,” the agency said.
     An additional 9,554 acres of proposed Fickeisen habitat on Navajo Nation land, and 385 acres of proposed acuña habitat on Tohono O’odham Nation land were removed from the final designation because “these tribes have shown a commitment to conserving the plants on their respective lands, and exclusion of these lands from critical habitat is important in preserving our government-to-government relationships,” the agency noted.
     The U.S. population of acuña cactus, which is in southern Arizona near the border with Mexico, has decreased by more than 80 percent. The plant is affected by drought, climate change, insect attack and trampling caused by border-crossing and enforcement actions.
     The tiny 2.4 inch tall Fickeisen cactus in northern Arizona is affected by drought, insect infestation and trampling by livestock.
     A critical habitat designation does not affect actions on non-federal lands, unless the activities would require federal funding or permitting, the agency said. “Areas designated as critical habitat [for the cacti] are primarily federally owned lands administered by the Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, ” according to the agency.
     The final critical habitat designation is effective Sept. 19.
Photo credit: Jim Rorabaugh, USFWS

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