Categorized | Imperiled Wildlife

Trade offs in time and costs in developing Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs)

Co-authored with Jake Li

The USFWS has approved more than 500 Habitat Conservation Plans, allowing developers, private landowners and state and local governments to move forward with projects that may harm endangered species.  The Plans and the process for approving them are widely criticized for many things, but in particular because they take so long to finalize.  For example plans in Yolo County, California and for the Sonoran desert of Pima County, Arizona took more than eight years to complete.

It’s unclear why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) doesn’t offer more transparent choices to developers when initiating development of an HCP.

For example, at the time an applicant walks in the door of a USFWS office, there is a certain amount of information known about the site where a development will occur and the likely impacts of that development – that information represents the ‘best available science’ at the time.  In most cases that information provides the agency with very little certainty about the endangered species that will be impacted, the magnitude and significance of those impacts, and the options for avoiding, minimizing and mitigating those impacts.  Nevertheless, some information is available to agencies and they could move forward with the applicant in developing an HCP.  The likely outcome would be very high mitigation requirements based on estimates for the most robust characterization of the population of species that might be present on the development site.  The USFWS policy handbook on this subject already makes allowance for this approach by saying that where “the applicant insists consultation be completed without the data or analyses requested…” USFWS is expected to give ‘the species the benefit of the doubt.” The applicant, in securing a quicker answer would accept a trade off of mitigation costs that better (but as yet unavailable) science could reduce.

In contrast, an applicant who works with the USFWS to exhaustively document the wildlife on and near the development site and to work with the USFWS to try to minimize and avoid impacts to that wildlife may typically have a much lower mitigation cost, but will end up funding expensive research and perhaps more importantly, waiting years for the results of the research they fund.

If time is the most important factor for a developer of a project seeking an HCP from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s not clear why they shouldn’t have more choices to pursue a quicker, but more expensive route to a finalized HCP.  USFWS could offer such an outcome without resulting in worse outcomes for wildlife and perhaps even with better results, since applicants will sometimes be paying for beneficial wildlife activities that ‘not yet available’ science would have shown were not required.

This post was written by:

- who has written 17 posts on dotWild.

Tim Male is Vice President for Conservation at Defenders of Wildlife. Tim directs a number of Defenders’ conservation policy programs, including Habitat and Highways, Conservation Planning, Federal Lands, Oregon Biodiversity Partnership, and Economics.

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