Habitat Conservation Plans: Mitigating private activities to protect vulnerable species

Spring 2014

Endangered fish and other species need healthy habitat to survive. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) recognizes that in order to protect species, we must protect their natural habitats. To do this, the ESA provides a unique tool, known as a Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP, which provides for conservation partnerships between the federal government and non-federal entities to advance habitat protection and stewardship. 

An HCP outlines a long-term strategy for minimizing, mitigating, and monitoring the impacts of actions that may harm species or degrade their habitats. HCPs are associated with a variety of activities, including city water supplies, commercial forestry, and land development. NOAA Fisheries works with applicants to identify conservation actions that, if implemented, allow an activity to legally proceed in a way that will prevent unlawful harm, or “take,” of a listed species. 

Applicants typically are private landowners, public utilities, or state agencies who perceive an ESA liability associated with a particular action. They decide to partner with NOAA Fisheries so their action can proceed under sound stewardship. HCPs, and the accompanying permits, are aligned with scientifically-based strategies designed to conserve and help recover listed species. At the same time, applicants benefit from the certainty associated with an HCP’s stable, long-term regulations. Because broad conservation measures are often included, in addition to specific measures, even vulnerable non-listed species can benefit from an HCP. NOAA Fisheries has helped applicants develop over 20 HCPs on the West Coast, with several additional HCPs in development.

In Washington’s Cedar River watershed, for example, the City of Seattle and NOAA Fisheries have been conservation partners since the signing of a 50-year HCP in 2000. To protect water quality, the agreement established the watershed as a no-logging forest reserve. Since this time, the city has restored salmon access to roughly 17 miles of high quality habitats. Improved fish passage and in-stream flows, along with other activities like floodplain restoration, are required under the agreement.

In 2003, under the same HCP, Seattle built a fish ladder and screens to pass salmon above the city’s water intake system. Researchers with NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center are studying the natural recolonization of coho salmon above the fish ladder and have documented increased abundance of spawners and rearing juvenile fish. In addition, the city committed to weekly flows that benefit all salmon species in the Cedar River, including 22 miles outside city limits, downstream to Renton, Washington. The city also committed several million dollars for salmon conservation outside the HCP lands, including the lower Cedar River and the locks at Lake Union. All stakeholders involved in helping implement Seattle’s HCP agree that, 14 years into it, we are witnessing positive ecological benefits.

Another notable HCP provides mitigation for a gravel mining and processing operations at the 300-acre Daybreak Mine, near southwestern Washington’s East Fork Lewis River. The Lewis River is a tributary to the Columbia River and is home to numerous listed fish, including Chinook, coho and chum salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. Low seasonal flows and excessive temperatures are a threat to the recovery of these listed fish. 

A 25-year HCP allows Storedahl, Inc. – a supplier of sand, aggregate, and rock products in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon – to maintain its operations while mitigating for the impacts on species needing important protections. As part of the Daybreak Mine HCP, early 1950s water rights totaling125-acre feet per year of East Fork Lewis River water, the equivalent of 78 gallons per minute, are being transferred to the Washington Trust Water Rights Program. These surface and ground water rights will be used in perpetuity to increase the East Fork’s in-stream flow, perhaps the greatest factor limiting salmon and steelhead recovery in the basin. Transferring these senior water rights back to the river is particularly valuable because they will supplement stream flows in the East Fork during summer and fall, when river flows typically are lowest and water diversions for other uses highest. This water rights transfer will improve water quantity and quality, and benefit listed fish and other wildlife.

In addition to the water right donations, the HCP includes commitments to maintain 102 acres of open water and 114 acres of valley-bottom forest; create 84 acres of emergent wetlands and riparian habitat; and enhance tributary habitat on the site. These habitat features will be placed under a conservation easement that limits all future land uses, and will benefit an array of fish and wildlife species. It also includes a $1 million dollar endowment to manage and maintain the lands for fish and wildlife values. Low impact recreational uses will be allowed on the land.

HCPs help to balance the needs of fish and wildlife over the long-term, aiding the recovery of many vulnerable species, while simultaneously supporting thoughtfully conducted activities.  They benefit ESA-listed species and may help others from becoming listed in the future. HCPs are an important means to protect the natural resources we value and the well-being of local communities and economies.

Learn more about Habitat Conservation Plans:


Learn what NOAA is doing to protect habitat on the West Coast:


Learn what threatens the health of our habitats:


Home page: NMFS photo of salmon in the East Fork Lewis River