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The designation of critical habitat is a central component of the legal scheme developed by Congress to prevent the permanent loss of species. Only under limited circumstances not demonstrated here may the Service properly defer its habitat designation responsibilities.
In May 1988, twenty-two environmental organizations challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ("Service") decision, on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior, to defer designation of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl. The ESA requires the Secretary, "to the maximum extent prudent and determinable," to designate critical habitat concurrently with his decision to list a species as endangered or threatened. When critical habitat is not determinable at the time of the final listing rule, the Secretary is authorized up to twelve additional months to complete the designation. The governing administrative regulations specify that the Secretary must state his reasons for not designating critical habitat in the proposed and final listing rules. The Secretary, through the Service, claims that critical habitat for the spotted owl was not "determinable" when, in June 1989, the Service proposed to list the owl as threatened or when it issued its final rule one year later. The federal defendants contend that, under these circumstances, they are entitled to a twelve-month extension of time pursuant to 16 U.S.C. § 1533(b)(6)(C). The organizations charged that the Secretary has violated the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to designate critical habitat concurrently with the listing of the northern spotted owl.
Did the Service abuse its discretion when it determined not to designate critical habitat concurrently with the listing of the northern spotted owl, or to explain any basis for concluding that the critical habitat was not determinable?
The court found that the Service has failed to discharge its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and its own administrative regulations. Specifically, the Service acting on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior, abused its discretion when it determined not to designate critical habitat concurrently with the listing of the northern spotted owl, or to explain any basis for concluding that the critical habitat was not determinable. These actions were arbitrary and capricious, and contrary to law. 5 U.S.C. § 706. Common sense dictates that the spotted owl would be poorly served by a hastily crafted or uninformed habitat plan. Congress expressly provided for periodic revisions to critical habitat plans to avoid this result. Accordingly, the Service is ordered to submit to the Court by March 15, 1991 a written plan for completing its review of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl. The Service was further ordered to publish its proposed critical habitat plan no later than forty-five days thereafter. The final rule was to be published at the earliest possible time under the appropriate circumstances.