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Plan seeks to limit 'critical habitat' cases

By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune

    WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration issued new guidance Wednesday seeking to limit the cases in which it will designate "critical habitat" meant to preserve endangered animals but which often infuriates Western landowners.
    Under the letter sent to Fish and Wildlife field offices, the restrictions associated with critical habitat will be imposed only when they are supported by sound science and economic analysis and will be used only in limited areas that are vital to species conservation.
    The new guidelines also instruct the field offices not to designate critical habitat if other conservation steps already are in place.
    "The present system for designating critical habitat is broken," Craig Manson, the Interior Department's assistant secretary in charge of endangered species programs, told the House Resources Committee.
    He said court orders stemming from environmental lawsuits are now consuming the bulk of the Fish and Wildlife Service's resources, and the process often bears little fruit for the endangered animals and breeds ill-will among private landowners.
    The group Defenders of Wildlife agreed that the system for protecting habitat is broken, but said the administration has failed to offer a credible alternative.
    In the 30 years since the Endangered Species Act was passed, 1,304 plants and animals have been listed and only a dozen have recovered, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
    Manson said those numbers show that the goal of the Endangered Species Act -- the recovery of the species -- is not being met. 
    Utah has 19 animal species and 24 types of plants listed as threatened or endangered, including the bald eagle, the black-footed ferret and the California condor. Wayne County alone has habitat for 19 different threatened or endangered species.
    In recent years, there have been heated disputes about protected critical habitat for the desert tortoise, Mexican spotted owl and southwestern willow flycatcher in southern Utah, where the designations have restricted land use by ranchers and off-road recreationists.
    The House committee debated a proposal Wednesday that would require the Fish and Wildlife Service to weigh the direct and indirect economic impact of protecting areas as critical habitat.
    It also requires the agency to prepare a recovery plan before designating critical habitat, a proposal that has been pushed by both the Bush and Clinton administrations. The change would postpone the protection of the land, but would ensure there is a scientific basis for closing off areas.
    Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said that state and local governments and private landowners have been burdened by critical-habitat designations that are not supported by sound science.
    "Clearly, many changes to the ESA and the process of designating critical habitat are needed," he said in a statement. "It is time to bring science and common sense to the ESA. By allowing local governments and landowners into the designation process, we will reduce the amount of litigation clogging our courtrooms and protect needed areas."


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