Once upon a time, when a new species was listed under ESA, the Forest Service was required to reinitiate consultation on its forest plan regarding the effects of the plan on the species. Projects were often held up while this was occurring. As a result of the Cottonwood litigation, involving a new designation of critical habitat for Canada lynx, the law was recently changed so that neither new critical habitat nor listings require new consultation on existing forest plans (as discussed here).
The candy darter (CBD photo) was listed as endangered in late 2018 and it is found on the Monongahela National Forest. The Center for Biological Diversity provided this news release regarding a proposed timber sale in a watershed where the species is found and where critical habitat for it is being considered:
The U.S. Forest Service this week announced it will withdraw a 2,400-acre logging project in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest following objections raised by conservation groups about harm to an endangered fish.
The project would likely have caused significant erosion and sent sediment into rivers and streams, threatening the rare fish and other animals.
“Friends of Blackwater and all of our supporters are very pleased that the Monongahela National Forest supervisor has withdrawn the Big Rock Timber Project proposal,” said Judy Rodd, director of Friends of Blackwater. “Hopefully this is a step toward fully protecting the candy darter, a tiny jewel of a fish found in the timbering proposal area, near the world-famous Cranberry Glades.”
The Forest Service announcement said the project would have been the first of its kind to require formal consultation under the Endangered Species Act for the brightly colored candy darter, which was listed as endangered in November 2018. The Fish and Wildlife Service would have had to calculate how many, if any, candy darters could be killed or harmed by the proposed project. The Fish and Wildlife Service also plans to include portions of the logging project area in its final designation of the fish’s critical habitat. Those issues contributed to the decision to pull the project.
Presumably the Monongahela has come to a full stop on projects that may affect the darter, while they figure out a strategy for consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service. This is pretty close to the same result that would have occurred without the “Cottonwood fix.” This is a situation where consultation on a forest plan has proven beneficial. It should result in a species conservation strategy that “fully protects” the species’ habitat on the forest that the FWS supports and that can be included in the forest plan. The FWS may then rely on the forest plan decisions and their biological opinion for analysis of its overall effects, which would simplify and streamline the consultation process for projects.
Post-Cottonwood, they could now choose instead to proceed on an individual project-by-project basis, but why?
(PS – This looks like an example where the administrative objection process prevented the Forest Service from losing a lawsuit.)