Proposed and Designated Critical Habitat

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted to conserve species that are in danger of extinction now (i.e., endangered) or in the foreseeable future (i.e., threatened). Because species may be threatened or endangered because of habitat destruction, modification, or curtailment, the designation of critical habitat is an important tool in the conservation of these species. The term “critical habitat” most often refers to specific areas within the geographical range occupied by the species (at the time of listing) that contain physical or biological features essential to conservation of the species. In some cases, “critical habitat” may include specific areas outside the geographical space occupied by the species, if an agency has determined that such space is essential for conservation of the species. So why should federal ocean planners pay attention to critical habitat designations?

  1. Critical habitat means caution when planning. Federal agencies that authorize, fund, or carry out actions that may affect an endangered species are required to consult with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to ensure that those actions are not likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat. Any nonfederal stakeholders whose projects are authorized or funded by the federal government may also be affected by these provisions through the funding or authorizing federal agency.
  2. Boundaries are not black and white. A proposed action does not need to originate within the boundaries of a critical habitat to be subject to ESA provisions. The key factor is whether the proposed action may affect the critical habitat. For example, construction activities occurring outside a critical habitat area might cause siltation and noise to occur within that habitat, thereby creating adverse effects. Also, the presence of critical habitat in a specific area does not mean that species will not be found outside the designated area.
  3. Both NMFS and USFWS manage the critical habitats. Both agencies are required to determine whether any species is endangered or threatened and, if so, designate critical habitat to the maximum extent prudent and determinable. The USFWS has jurisdiction over terrestrial and freshwater species, while NMFS has jurisdiction over marine species and many species that migrate between ocean and freshwater (such as salmon and sturgeon); for some species, such as sea turtles, NMFS and USFWS share jurisdiction. Here is a complete list of proposed and designated critical habitats that are included in, listed by agency.

Quick Caveats. Critical habitat has not been designated for all endangered or threatened species. provides both Coastal Critical Habitat Designations and Proposed Coastal Critical Habitat Areas.

For designations published before May 31, 2012, critical habitat maps are illustrative only. The textual descriptions of the designated critical habitat provided in the associated Federal Register notices are the definitive sources for determining critical habitat boundaries. For designations published after May 31, 2012, the maps (and any clarifying textual descriptions) are the definitive source for critical habitat boundaries.

Data-Expert Sources:
Jennifer Schultz, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Fish Management Specialist
Jacob Fielitz, Cherokee Nation Technologies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Contractor, GIS Manager
Ryan Brodie, Cherokee Nation Technologies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Contractor, GIS and Data Engineer

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