Questions & Answers on Proposed Critical Habitat for Lower Columbia River Coho Salmon & Puget Sound Steelhead

Q: What is critical habitat?
A:
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) defines critical habitat as:

  1. Specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing that contain the physical or biological features essential to conservation, and that may require special management considerations or protection; and
  2. Specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species that the Secretary of Commerce determines are essential for conservation of the species.

Q: How is critical habitat designated?
A:
The ESA requires that NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designate critical habitat for ESA-listed species. In doing so, we must use the best scientific information available, engage in an open public process, and complete the designation within specific timeframes. Before designating critical habitat, we must consider the economic impacts, potential impacts to national security, and other relevant impacts that may ensue from specifying a particular area as critical habitat. The Secretary of Commerce may exclude an area from critical habitat if the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of designation, unless excluding the area will result in the extinction of the species concerned. This proposed rule (pdf format 12.2MB) solicits public comments on the areas that NOAA Fisheries believes warrant designation as critical habitat, and areas the agency believes should be excluded from designation.

Q: Which species do these critical habitat proposals protect?
A:
This proposed designation applies to two distinct population segments (DPS) of Pacific salmonids listed as threatened under the ESA: (1) Lower Columbia River coho salmon and (2) Puget Sound steelhead. Although the proposed designations pertain to just these populations, they will provide benefits to other ESA-listed species that share this range, including other salmonid DPSs (such as Puget Sound and Lower Columbia River Chinook salmon),  eulachon, and  green sturgeon.

Q: What is the geographic extent of this critical habitat designation?
A:
The specific areas proposed for Lower Columbia River coho include approximately 2,288 miles (3,681 km) of freshwater and estuarine habitat in western Oregon and Washington. The specific areas proposed for Puget Sound steelhead include approximately 1,880 miles (3,026 km) of freshwater and estuarine habitat in Puget Sound, Wash. We propose to exclude a number of particular areas from designation because the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of inclusion, and exclusion will not result in the extinction of the species. We detailed the specific estuaries, rivers, and creeks proposed as critical habitat in the Federal Register notice. pdf format 12.2MB

Q: How can I determine which areas are designated?
A:
The Federal Register notice(pdf format 12.2MB) has information describing specific estuaries, rivers, and creeks (including latitude and longitude identifiers), and maps of the areas proposed for designation.

Q: Why is it necessary to designate critical habitat at this time?
A:
The ESA requires us to designate critical habitat at the time of listing, or within one year if critical habitat is not determinable at that time. We listed Lower Columbia River coho in 2005 and Puget Sound steelhead in 2007. At the time of each listing, we concluded that critical habitat was not determinable. Since then we published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking(pdf format 163kb) to designate critical habitat and solicit information and comment from the public. We're now prepared to issue proposed critical habitat designations for these two populations, and invite additional public comment on them before making final designations.

Q: What happens once critical habitat is designated, and how does it change what federal agencies must do to satisfy the ESA?
A:
The ESA protects listed species in several ways. Under Section 7, all federal agencies must ensure that any actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species, or destroy or adversely modify its designated critical habitat. These complementary requirements apply only to federal agency actions, and the latter only to habitat that has been designated. A critical habitat designation does not set up a preserve or refuge, and applies only when federal funding, permits, or projects are involved. Critical habitat requirements do not apply to citizens engaged in activities on private land that do not involve a federal agency. Many actions that adversely modify a species' critical habitat will also jeopardize its continued existence. In practice, we'll continue to be concerned about the same activities that harm salmon and steelhead and their habitat, regardless of whether that habitat is designated. We expect that where critical habitat is designated, it will more precisely focus our analysis on how the action will alter the habitat, and how that will affect the ability of the habitat to support species' conservation.

Q: What areas are excluded and why?
A:
The ESA gives the Secretary of Commerce discretion to exclude areas from designation if he determines that the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of designation. We've excluded areas that overlap with Native American tribal lands and habitat conservation plans (where the HCP landowner requested exclusion). These areas are proposed for exclusion because of the unique trust relationship between tribes and the federal government and the ongoing conservation commitments of our HCP partners.

Q: Are any unoccupied areas designated?
A:
We have proposed to designate approximately 45 river miles (72 km) in the upper Elwha River that were unoccupied at the time that the Puget Sound steelhead DPS was listed as a threatened species. Recent dam removals have made these areas accessible to steelhead. We've determined that they're essential for the species' conservation and warrant designation as critical habitat.

Q: What are the estimated economic impacts of the designation?
A:
Our estimates reflect the total cost associated with adding a critical habitat assessment to existing ESA Section 7 consultations. Once critical habitat is designated, federal agencies must ensure their actions are not likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat. Based on our prior consultation record, we estimated the annual net economic impact of Section 7 critical habitat requirements (that is, "adverse modification") to be approximately $344,315 for lower Columbia River coho and approximately $326,966 for Puget Sound steelhead. A draft economic report(pdf format 5.3MB) accompanying our decision gives details of the analysis (see below).

Q: How can I get information about this rule?
A:
The proposed rule is published in the Federal Register (pdf format 12.2MB) The analysis supporting the final rule is explained in detail in several accompanying documents. They include: A  draft biological report(pdf format 184kb) describing how we mapped fish distribution, determined which areas meet the definition of critical habitat, and rated the conservation value of different areas. A draft economic report (pdf format 5.3MB) describing how we estimated the economic impact of this proposal on different areas. A draft ESA section 4(b)(2) report(pdf format 3.3MB) describing how we weighed the benefits of exclusion versus the benefits of designation, to recommend the exclusion of particular areas.

Q: How can I comment on this proposed rule?
A:
We must receive comments on this proposed rule by 5 p.m. Pacific time on Apr. 15, 2013. You may submit comments on the proposed rule by any one of the following methods: