WASHINGTON (CN) - Nearly a decade after listing coho salmon and Puget Sound steelhead as threatened species, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated critical habitat Wednesday.
Under provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), critical habitat is to be designated at the time of listing, or within one year. The agency found that critical habitat was "not determinable" within that timeframe, according to the final action.
The distinct population segment (DPS) of lower Columbia River coho salmon was listed as threatened in June 2005, and the Puget Sound steelhead DPS was listed as threatened in May 2007. "Since the time of listing, the recovery planning process has progressed for these two DPSs and additional new information is now available to better inform the designation process," the agency said.
Remarkably, the final critical habitat designation published Wednesday comes just eight days after a coalition of five fish conservation organizations filed suit against the agency for "failing to complete and implement a recovery plan" for the Puget Sound steelhead, according to the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC), which spearheaded the legal action. The suit was filed Feb. 16, in the Western District of Washington U.S. District Court in Seattle. The other plaintiffs are The Conservation Angler, International Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee, Washington Fly Fishing Club and Wild Steelhead Coalition.
"A recovery plan is essential to determine what is necessary to prevent the extinction of Puget Sound steelhead and to ensure that ongoing and future projects and management actions are consistent with recovery of the species. As a result of NMFS' delay, funds are not being allocated to projects aimed at protecting and restoring important steelhead habitat, and ongoing projects like the domesticated Chambers Creek hatchery programs that are harming the species continue to move forward," WFC said.
Critical habitat is defined under the ESA as specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed that have features essential to the conservation of the species, and which may need special management or protection. Under certain circumstances, areas outside occupied habitat might also be designated.
Some areas considered in the January 2013 proposal were excluded in the final designation because they were already covered by voluntary habitat conservation plans, were on tribal lands or lands owned by the U.S. military that have resource management plans, or were excluded due to economic reasons, where the conservation benefits were low compared to the economic impacts, the agency said.
In the final habitat designation for the Puget Sound steelhead, the agency designated 2,031 miles of habitat in Puget Sound, Wash., for the steelhead, with 138 miles excluded for economic reasons, 1,361 miles excluded because conservations plans are in place, and 70 miles excluded because they are on tribal lands.
In the final rule, the agency designated 2,300 miles of freshwater and estuarine habitat for the coho salmon in 55 watersheds in Oregon and Washington, with 27 miles excluded for economic reasons, and 1,018 miles excluded because they were covered by conservation plans.
No unoccupied areas were included for the coho, but one unoccupied area was designated for the steelhead, because the removal of two dams now opens access to those areas for the fish, according to the agency's fact sheet.
The designation of critical habitat requires that any project carried out, funded or authorized by a federal agency must undergo a consultation process with the Service to ensure that the habitat is not adversely modified or destroyed.
The designation is effective March 25.
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