Multispecies Conservation Plans Have Scientific Flaws
July 21, 2006
A new San Diego State University-led study found that many multispecies habitat conservation plans — a cornerstone of modern efforts to balance development and ecological preservation — have significant informational flaws that limit or overestimate the plans’ conservation potential.
The report, published in the current edition of the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, reviewed the species selected for coverage in 22 multispecies habitat conservation plans (MSHCPs) permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. It found that, on average, 41 percent of plants and animals covered in the MSHCPs were not even confirmed to exist in the plan areas. Furthermore, it also found that many plans lacked specific conservation measures or actions designed to protect individual species, and also lacked data necessary to evaluate a plan’s effectiveness.
“While we don’t question the value of multispecies conservation plans, our study suggests that changes are needed to achieve full conservation potential,” said Matt Rahn, lead researcher and SDSU’s director of field station programs. “There are some very good MSHCPs out there, designed around sound scientific methods. Unfortunately, there are other plans which don’t seem to be based on good data or appear to simply pay lip service to meaningful species protection.”
Big Basin in California. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
“The law allows for development that is consistent with conservation,” said Doremus. “But if the plans are approved without adequate information, we can’t be confident that the law will meet its primary goal — conservation.”
Habitat conservation plans began to appear in 1982 under a provision added to the Endangered Species Act to mediate conflicts between development and conservation of endangered species. They allow development interests to set aside areas for habitat preservation in exchange for permission to develop other land and “incidentally take” species or habitats listed or proposed for protection by federal, state or other authorities.
The study reviewed MSHCPs created by municipalities, utilities and private companies ranging from lumber operations to oil and gas companies. The plans ranged in size from less than 30 acres to 5 million acres, and covered anywhere from eight to 161 species. All were approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service between April 1994 and December 2004.
For each of the 22 plans evaluated, the team considered a species confirmed if it had been located in the planning area through current or recent surveys, reports or other data sources. If a plan presumed the presence of species without site-specific supporting data, covered species were considered unconfirmed.
Of all the plans reviewed, only one — Ocean Trails in Los Angeles County, Calif.– confirmed the presence of all protected species. On the other extreme, a Seneca/Enron Oil and Gas habitat conservation plan in Kern County, Calif., had the largest percentage of unconfirmed species — nearly 89 percent. The plans also varied widely in justification for species coverage and in the extent of species-specific conservation actions advised.
Most plans provided some level of habitat conservation, but many did not specifically account for the individual conservation needs of covered species. Of the species that did not have specific conservation actions, more than 85 percent were not confirmed in the planning area.
“In order to create more successful habitat conservation plans, more emphasis needs to be placed on information gathering during the planning process prior to implementation,” Rahn said, adding that he recommends the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thoroughly assess the policies and procedures involved in granting species coverage in an MSHCP. “Scientific and legal standards for permitting species coverage should be better articulated and standardized.”
Approximately 85 percent of the country’s approved multispecies plans are located in the region studied, also known as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 1. Overall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved nearly 450 habitat conservation plans covering nearly 40 million acres between 1982 and 2005.
This is a modified news release from UC Davis