Big Island 'critical habitat' for native plants reduced

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 208,063 acres of the Big Island as critical habitat to protect 41 native plants — an area 52 percent smaller than originally proposed last year. The reduction spares about 47,000 acres of U.S. Army land and thousands of acres controlled by Kamehameha Schools and the Queen Liliuokalani Trust.

“Critical habitat” is a term in the Endangered Species Act that identifies geographic areas that are essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and may require special management considerations.

The FWS eliminated 47,540 acres of the U.S. Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area from the area covered by the final rule because they believe the Army is already adequately managing the land for the listed species, and because the benefits to national security of excluding the lands outweigh the benefits of including the lands within critical habitat.

“We are very much involved in working with the Army as it plans for its eventual transformation into a Stryker combat brigade,” said Paul Henson, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific islands fish and wildlife office, in a recent press release. “Because of their involvement, we believe we have a far better set of designations.”

The Army completed an Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMP) and an ecosystem Management Plan for the training area, which includes management activities to benefit 10 listed plants species found either presently or historically on its lands. The Army has also promised to amend the INRMP to include three more listed species found on lands the Army is in the process of acquiring, and they have agreed to coordinate with the FWS on any actions that might affect the endangered species’ habitat.

Meanwhile, officials with the Kamehameha Schools and the Queen Liliuokalani Trust both indicated to the FWS that if their total of 13,015 acres of proposed critical habitat lands were included in the final rule, they might discontinue any voluntary efforts to benefit the endangered species on their lands. The FWS decided that the benefits of excluding these lands from critical habitat outweigh the benefits that might have been achieved by including them.

“Queen Liliuokalani Trust has volunteered to propagate and reintroduce the two plant species for which critical habitat was proposed on its lands, as well as incorporate the species into its cultural and educational programs,” said Henson in the release. “We believe working cooperatively together we can do far more to recover the species. Regulations don’t accomplish nearly as much.”

As on the other Hawaiian Islands which have recently received critical habitat designation to protect endangered plant species, the reductions in acreage were a result of new information and public comments received after the proposing the original rule.

“I want to compliment all those who have been involved in this major endeavor, especially the many people in Hawaii, from state employees to hunters, private landowners to botanists, environmentalists to the military, who have been willing to work with us to develop these critical habitat rules,” said Henson. “Because of their involvement, we believe we have a far better set of designations.”

The FWS made some reductions for biological reasons, as a result of field visits, or because of public comments that revealed that the habitat elements needed by the plant did not exist at the site or that the areas were not essential for the conservation of the species. In some cases, the FWS found that the species conservation needs could be better met on another island.

Land in the Kailua-Kona area that was slated for development as affordable housing was also excluded from the critical habitat rule. FWS found that the economic and social costs of including these lands within critical habitat outweigh the benefits.

The revisions to the critical habitat rule resulted in a significant decrease in costs, according to the release. The quantifiable costs estimated in the draft economic analysis decreased from $62.7 million over 10 years to $6 million to $7.5 million over 10 years, largely due to the elimination of the Army lands and the units in the Kailua-Kona area from the final rule.

Out of the total 208,063 acres the FWS designated as critical habitat, 55 percent is owned by State or local agencies, 37 percent by the federal government within the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, and 8 percent is owned by private landowners.

Critical habitat designation doesn’t affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area, nor does it allow for government or public access to private lands. This designation for critical habitat was completed by the FWS after the agency was sued by Earthjustice on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, the Sierra Club, and the Hawaiian Botanical Society.

According to the FWS press release, after 30 years of implementing the Endangered Species Act, the FWS has found that the critical habitat designation provides little protection for listed species, while preventing the FWS form using scarce conservation resources for other activities that might have greater conservation benefits.

The FWS has found that is almost all cases, recovery of listed species comes through voluntary cooperative partnerships, not regulatory measures like critical habitat.

The final critical habitat rule was published in the Federal Register. The final rule and other information about the designation are also available at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website.

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