Feds to drop new habitat rules, ending state’s legal challenge

The polar bear is deemed a threatened species in Alaska. The Fish & Wildlife Service lists eight Alaska species as threatened or endangered. Photo: USFWS

The Trump administration has agreed to rewrite rules that would have made it easier for the government to designate areas as “critical habitat” for endangered species.

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The move is another step toward eroding the Obama administration’s environmental legacy. It comes after Alaska joined other states in a lawsuit challenging habitat rules for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The states claim a 2016 update to the rules goes far beyond the Endangered Species Act.

Maria Bahr is an assistant attorney general for the state.

“Alaska hasn’t had any critical habitat designations based on the 2016 rules,” Bahr said. “However, we would be concerned about designations of critical habitat being over-broad for those designations currently being considered or those that would be prospectively considered.”

Once an area is declared “critical habitat,” federal agencies have to consult with each other more before they can permit or fund projects there. The 2016 rules allowed agencies to deem an area “critical” even if a species was not using it. The lawsuit claimed the new regulations are so vague that a desert might be considered critical habitat for fish.

Alaska and 19 other states dropped their legal challenge after the Trump administration agreed to reconsider the rules.

The Center for Biological Diversity says the rules provided strong, reasonable protection and claims the Trump administration has shown “hostility” toward endangered species.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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