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What is a Critical Habitat? Everything You Need to Know

Critical habitat is an area necessary for a species’ survival. Critical habitats are areas that are vital to a species’ survival and recovery. They may not be currently occupied by the species or may be occupied only seasonally or as part of a species’ life cycle.

Critical habitat can include any part of the natural range of a species that is essential for its survival and recovery. It can consist of terrestrial (land), freshwater, marine, or estuarine areas. In some cases, it may include human-made structures such as dams or fences if they are part of the species natural range.

Federal agencies can designate critical habitats. A critical habitat designation does not mean that an area will receive more protection measures. 

In the US, if the number of species decreases rapidly, the species must be listed as critically endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. Then Federal agencies can designate and authorize a specific place to be critical habitat for that species.

Table of Contents

What is a Critical Habitat?

Wet Land Habitat

Critical habitat has certain biological features essential to conserving an endangered species. Critical habitats may need special management considerations from federal agencies and fish and wildlife services.

For example, one of the critically endangered species is the right whale. The national marine fisheries service handles protecting them.

If they find a place with potential physical and biological features, they designate the place as critical habitat for the right whales.

The biological features essential for conserving a listed species must have specific resources. These resources are food, shelter, water, freedom from threat, and many more.

For example, a whale needs deep water to survive. If a particular area has the right conditions to support a species, it may be designated as suitable critical habitat for that species.

See Related: Habitat Loss Solutions You Need to Know

The Definition of Critical Habitat

The definition of critical habitat was any region considered crucial for a species’ survival or recovery. This is regardless of whether the species lives there now, has lived there in the past, uses them for migration, or requires them for any other reason.

Specified regions outside the geographical area occupied by the species are listed if the agency decides that the site is crucial for the conservation of the species. Endangered and threatened species must have critical habitat designations.

The current definition of critical habitat includes occupied and unoccupied places. They’re mentioned in the statutory description of “critical habitat.” So it is compatible with the legislation and the statute about the role of critical habitat in species conservation.

Ensuring the survival of these species and the areas on which they rely benefits a wide range of other wildlife species in addition to humans. They are dependent on the same habitats for hunting, fishing, outdoor enjoyment, and other amenities such as clean air and water.

Why is a Critical Habitat important for endangered species? 

All endangered species is essential for ecological balance. If a species is rendered extinct, it impacts many related species’ lives and food chains.

It can even adversely affect human life. Even economic and national security can be in danger if the food chain is disrupted.

In 1973, lawmakers in the United States adopted the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Protecting endangered (sure to become lost without intervention) species and their habitat is now a federal government obligation under this law. 

There are two federal agencies tasked with identifying endangered species. First, there is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOOA) for marine species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) takes care of terrestrial and river species.

Any animal receiving ESA protection is a “listed” species. Besides, many other species are considered for potential conservation. They are known as “candidate” species.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service are to designate critical habitats. The FWS considers critical habitat designations based on the most accurate scientific and commercial information. It depends on what an animal or plant species needs to survive, reproduce, and recover.

See Related: Different Types of Habitats Around the World

Critical Habitat Designation Process

Group of Penguin

Prior to designating critical habitat, great thought must be given to the economic effects, consequences on national security, and other pertinent impacts. The NOOA and USFWS critical habitat designation process is based on the best available scientific data and research. It’s a long process. When one of the federal agencies determines a species to be endangered, they designate the need for critical habitat.

Then the scientific community researches suitable environments. These are known as critical habitat requirements. 

Critical Habitat Exclusions

Economic, national security or other pertinent impacts may cause an area to be excluded from critical habitat status. In some circumstances, the benefits of excluding it may exceed the advantages of including it.

Critical Habitat Requirements

There are several requirements for designating critical habitat status in an area. The first need is to have the right physical or biological features needed by a species for reproduction and life processes. Then, the best scientific data available determines the possibility.

The proposed critical habitat must contain enough resources to accommodate the species without being damaged. If there is not enough food and shelter, the species cannot sustain itself or ruin the ecosystem for other species.

Moreover, the particular area should not have the threat of hunters – both humans and animals. Ideally, the proposed critical habitat should be far from human habitation.

Another crucial requirement is space. The designated critical habitat should have enough space to cover and shelter the listed species. In addition, the resources should be enough to accommodate the next generation.

Constrained places are not suitable for the conservation of a listed species. After assessing the complete description of a place, a final critical habitat is chosen.

See Related: Fascinating Facts About Wetlands

Impacts of Critical Habitat Designation

There are certain impacts, especially economic ones, on designated critical habitats. The aforementioned federal agencies have to bear the cost of these habitats.

Unfortunately, more than federal funding is needed. Consequently, the public has to make up for the rest.

There is another alarming matter for private land owners and developers. Once a particular area is selected to be critical habitat, they can only build and construct something with the approval of a federal agency.

That leads to project delays and often cancellations. The authority can restart the project if they decide to revise critical habitat plans. Critical habitat designation can threaten land ownership and real estate. It can also threaten businesses, oil pipelines, mining companies, and everything else.

The designation of critical habitat impacts only federal agency actions. It can also impact operations sponsored or authorized by the government. Critical habitat designations do not affect land ownership and their operations if there is no “nexus” with the federal government. This means no financing from the federal government or permissions is needed to carry them out. But the fact is, there will always be other relevant impacts on the surrounding places of a proposed critical habitat. 

Funding: Critical Habitat Plates

Minnesota Critical Habitat Plates
image by Crown Star Images is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Establishing critical habitat funding is also an important requirement. Federal funding is the most common source of funding. But common Joes and schmoes like you and I can also donate to save the listed species.

In Minnesota, for example, an individual can donate smaller amounts to protect habitat in exchange for special license plates for their car.

This is known as the Critical Habitat Plates Program. These small contributions can lead to bigger changes over time. 

In Minnesota, if you spare a small amount, you can contribute to saving the natural environment and critical habitats. For example, wetlands, forest growths, and other natural habitats could be conserved to protect wildlife.

If you contribute more than $30, it will go straight to a particular natural habitat. These natural habitats become open to communal activities. These activities include watching wildlife and other practices.

See Related: Best States for Sustainable Living

Critical Habitat Rules Under Threat

In some countries, the idea of critical habitat needs to be more present. Many governments do not have the goodwill to preserve endangered species.

In recent years, even the US Government has been eroding protections for certain critical habitats in favor of gas and oil companies.

Consequently, sometimes the budget for the conservation process needs to be increased.

Declaring private land as critical habitat is expensive. Moreover, lobbyists and occasionally public comments sometimes adversely affect the designation policy.

Critical habitats are also often subject to nefarious human hunters. There are laws against hunting protected species in critical habitats. But some people tend to enjoy hunting several fleshy animals for their meat, skin, fur, and teeth; you name it. Laws sometimes need to be more relaxed to punish lawbreakers. 

In 2019, the Trump administration decided to curb the Endangered Species Act. They proposed to curb the restoration process of previous critical habitats. It is a part of their willingness to endanger certain species and ecosystems.

12 Critical habitats in the US

There are a lot of critical habitat examples across the US, the North Pacific Ocean – and beyond. And some animals are in dire need of critical habitats but don’t yet have one. Here’s a list of both.

They range from whales to turtles and from wolves to butterflies – and they could call us a break.

1. Critical Habitat Designation for Leatherback Sea Turtles

Leatherback Sea Turtle on the Sand
Image by USFWS/Southeast is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Leatherback Turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. As a result, the NOAA and Fish and Wildlife Service have joined to protect sea turtles’ marine habitat. 

They have chosen Sandy Point, the Virgin Islands area, as critical habitat. Parts of the United States’ west coast are also a critical habitat for leatherback sea turtles. This designation of critical habitat was approved by NOAA fisheries and other federal agencies years before. 

Rising sea levels and the destruction of certain coastal environments can ruin the living environment for leatherback sea turtles. Thus, ensuring an entire geographical area for their continued existence is crucial.

Some major plans to protect sea turtles were to protect their foraging habitats. One of the steps is to reduce access to recreational vessels. These vessels can destroy or adversely modify the biological features of this particular area.

See Related: Sea Turtle Conservancy

2. Critical Habitat for North Atlantic Right Whales

North Atlantic Right Whale Sculpture
Image Ryan Somma by is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

North Atlantic Right Whales are mainly known for living in deep waters. Some of the threats to right whales are fishing equipment and the effects of climate change.

The NOAA Fisheries division does a great job at protecting the North Atlantic right whale’s critical habitat.

To designate critical habitats for right whales, they have designated the region of New England’s shore and Cape Fear’s coast.

Besides this, they have proposed other ways to preserve them. The first one is the sound reduction of the sea vessels in their critical habitats. Whales communicate with the resonance of sound. But they need to find their way in vessel sound and separate from the school.

Another proposed action is the reduction of water pollution in their habitats. Oil leakage from smaller boats and even ships can contaminate the water. These actions must be implemented to save the listed species.

See Related: Conservation vs Preservation

3. Protecting the Critical Habitat of Black-Foot Ferrets

Black-Foot Ferrets in the Wild

One of America’s most endangered species is this Black-Foot Ferret. The loss of habitats and diseases threaten the black-foot ferret’s survival.

The federal government introduced a designated critical habitat in South Dakota. They work with private landowners to ensure the species. Also, the government undertakes various proposed actions to conserve the species. This includes relocating the prairie dogs inside the ferret colony.

The habitat in South Dakota should support the recovery journey of the ferrets. However, more critical habitats are necessary to increase their number. 

See Related: Habitat vs Ecosystem vs Biome: What’s the Difference?

4. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna’s Critical Habitat

Bluefin Tunas

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna lives in the Western and Eastern Atlantic Oceans. They are also found in the Mediterranean Sea.

However, the continued existence of this species is severely threatened for various reasons. The main reason is commercial fishing. Many species of tuna are favorites at the dinner table all over the world.

Therefore, their number is decreasing at an alarming rate. Pollution of the seawater is also another reason they are in decline. The threat of climate change is a threat to most of the world’s endangered species.

Typical rules and regulations by the fish and wildlife service are there. But these rules are limited. Federal agencies and NOOA services may require special management considerations.

See Related: Are Fish Endangered? What You Need to Know

 5. Conserving the Critical Habitats of Red Wolves

Adult Red Wolf
Image by LaggedOnUser is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Red Wolves are carnivores facing endangerment. They were once found in the Southeast. Now they are becoming extinct, just like their Gray Wolf counterparts. 

The critical habitats for red wolves include forests, prairies, hilltops, and mountains. However, the primary or critical habitat is in the Peninsula of the Eastern North Carolina region. 

Their habitats typically consist of deer, bison, and other animals. Illegal hunting is the primary reason for their endangerment. 

According to a biological source document, eight red wolves were released into the wild. The purpose was to help the red wolves make a comeback from the brink of extinction. Still, their numbers are quite low.  

See Related: Encouraging Endangered Species Success Stories

6. Loggerhead Sea Turtle Critical Habitats

Loggerhead Sea Turtle
image by brian.gratwicke is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

There are 100,000 nests of Loggerhead Turtles in the United States. They are all under the protection of the NOAA Fisheries Department. Loggerheads have a high population density in the United States, the Bahamas, and Mexico.

One of the biggest threats to sea turtles is humans. Theirs prized by some hunters for their delicious meat. Black marketeers poach even their eggs. A lot of loggerheads are accidentally killed by boat strikes.

Ocean pollution and climate change are also the leading causes of the destruction of their habitation.

See Related: Loggerhead Sea Turtle: Why Is It Endangered?

7. California Condor Critical Habitat

California Condors-á

The critical habitats of California Condors include forests, gorges, and mountains. Unfortunately, there has been a sharp decline in the population of California condors since the 1900s. The main reasons include shooting, collecting eggs, and food chain disruptions from land developments.

To ensure the safe breeding of these endangered species, they are given habitation in places such as Redwood National and State Parks. 

See Related: Types of Tundra Plants Apart of This Biome

8. Critical Habitat of the Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

The Whooping Crane is another endangered species. It is a migratory bird, and it changes its habitat multiple times. For example, it changes its habitat from Canada to Texas as the seasons shift from summer to winter.

Lexington to Nebraska is the designated critical habitat for them. Their habitat includes marshes, wetlands, and prairies.

See Related: Black Crowned Crane: Why Is It Endangered?

9. Preserving the Peregrine Falcon’s Critical Habitat

Peregrine Falcon

The Peregrine Falcon occupies several places as its critical habitat. These birds prefer different kinds of terrestrial or biome environments. They mostly inhabit the Arctic coastal tundra. Falcons even live in urban environments.

These birds mostly prey on smaller birds, bats, and rats. The Peregrine Falcons are found in greater numbers in western Alaska. However, they have widespread migration patterns in most parts of Canada.

The species is slowly recovering in its critical habitats after DDT poisoning took a toll on them in the 1950s-1970s.

See Related: The Peregrine Fund

10. Monarch Butterfly Critical Habitat

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterflies migrate as far north as western Canada from Mexico. The main habitat of these butterflies is the warm coasts of western North America.

They also enjoy the warm open fields of the US. These butterflies feed on the nectar from countless flowers, crops, and other plants. As such, they are essential pollinators.

The main threats to these monarch butterflies are climate change and deforestation. Humans are altering the course of climates rapidly. Cutting down the trees leads to the death of monarch butterflies.

Over the last 20 years, monarch butterfly numbers have decreased exponentially. The pollination process has been seriously hindered as a result. And without pollinators, all life on Earth goes with them.

Other threats to the Monarch’s continued existence include the loss of domestic plants such as milkweed. Therefore, one crucial step the federal agency should take is replanting these flowers. Designating more critical habitats is another one.

See Related: What is the Goal of Wildlife Conservation?

11. Critical Habitat of the Bog Turtles

Bog Turtle
image by USFWS/Southeast is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It is possible to find Bog Turtles in places such as Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maryland. The species occupy limestone-rich environments and wet or grassy regions. 

These open and sunny wetlands are the main critical habitats of bog turtles. The loss of mountain bog habitats and green pitcher plants also leads to the loss of bog turtles.

Thanks to climate change, an increased population of predators are also responsible for the reduced number of this species. The decrease in watery land is another important cause. Conservation of the species is possible with critical habitat. 

See Related: Types of Turtles Around the World

12. Critical Habitat of Blanding’s turtle

Blanding's Turtle in the Wild
image by CheepShot is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The population of Blanding’s Turtles is mainly in St. Lawrence, Canada, but they are also found in parts of the US.

Among the main threats to them is logging. Yet, converting the marine and terrestrial habitats might be the biggest threat to Blanding’s turtle.

Human development in the surrounding shoreline can also impact their population. Residential development, fishing, and livestock farming are contributors to the endangerment of species. 

Critical habitats are necessary to prevent their endangerment and extinction. A particular area with certain physical features must be designated as critical habitat.

13. Silverspot Butterfly Critical Habitat

Silverspot Butterfly

The Silverspot Butterfly is believed to occur in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. This species was listed as a threatened species.

Because of habitat loss and degradation, Oregon silverspot populations have plummeted. The development of coastal headlands, control of fires, grazing, and the invasion of non-native vegetation have all contributed to the decrease of this butterfly.

The Silverspot Butterfly’s primary challenges include:

  • Habitat destruction and fragmentation.
  • Climate change.
  • Unsuitable livestock grazing.
  • Human modification of natural hydrology.
  • Genetic isolation.

Over the next 30 years, climatic conditions will alter across the Silverspot Butterfly’s habitat. This will reduce the subspecies’ survival.

14. Critical Habitat of Atlantic Pigtoe

The historical range of this species included North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. Only the James, Chowan, Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Cape Fear, and Yadkin-Pee Dee river basins in Virginia and North Carolina have been identified as critical habitats.

All critical habitat streams are accessible waters kept in public trust. A combination of private properties owns the riparian area next to the designated essential habitat. It includes conservation parcels, easements, and state-controlled game lands and parks.

The Atlantic Pigtoe’s ESA protections will aid in its conservation and restoration. ESA raises awareness about risks and conservation possibilities and drives broad cooperation on its behalf. Pollution, sedimentation, and dams are the primary hazards to freshwater mussels.

See Related: Botswana Predator Conservation Trust

15. Canada Lynx Critical Habitat

Canada Lynx

Canada lynx is a unique population segment. It is a vulnerable species under the Endangered Species Act in the contiguous United States. This was due to the inadequacy of regulatory procedures on federal public lands. Most possible lynx habitats existed at the time.

Timber harvesting, recreation, and other land uses can have a significant impact on lynx populations.

16. Critical Habitat of Northern Spotted Owl

Northern Spotted Owl

The historical range of this species included Oregon, Washington, and California. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is expanding the critical habitat for the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act.

The primary cause of the northern spotted owl’s classification as an endangered subspecies was habitat loss. It remains a stress factor for the subspecies. Continuous timber cutting, wildfire, and a tiny amount of pest and forest disease outbreaks also threaten its habitat.

See Related: Endangered Species in California You Need to Know

17. Yellowfin Madtom Critical Habitat

Yellowfin Madtom

This species is known to occur in Tennessee and Virginia. The madtom lives in small-to-medium-sized streams with a medium current, warm water, and adequate water quality.

Dams, river pollution, and invasive fish wiped out historical populations. It was identified as an endangered species in 1977, having crucial habitat in the Powell and Copper rivers.

18. Critical Habitat of Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse

Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse
Image from Jackie Isaacs/USFWS used under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse is known to occur in Florida. It is only found from Choctawhatchee Bay in Okaloosa County to St. Andrew Bay in Bay County. Populations can be found on protected grounds in the sand dunes of Shell Island, Grayton Beach, and Topsail Hill.

The major threat to the Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse is ongoing beach development. Development along beaches can destroy or degrade sand dunes. It can restrict areas of habitat for the beach mouse and increase fragmentation, which leads to population isolation.

Increased human activity on sand dunes is also a hazard to beach mice. It affects the flora on dunes that beach mice rely on for food and shelter. Hurricanes can also damage and destroy the beach mouse’s dune habitat due to high winds and storm surges. Increased hunting from wild and free-roaming cats, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes is among the other concerns.

See Related: Animals That Start With The Letter M

19. Critical Habitat of Peninsular Bighorn Sheep

Peninsular bighorn sheep

The Peninsular bighorn sheep is a separate subspecies of the desert bighorn sheep. The population is in Southern California’s Peninsular Ranges, from the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains south to the US-Mexico border.

The Peninsular Bighorn Sheep was designated as endangered in 1998. Persistent threats to the species include habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by development. Human-caused disturbances such as off-highway automobiles, trekking, and mountain biking also harm this species.

Non-native exotic plants, firefighting, and catastrophic fire all impact this species. Yet, the range-wide population had grown by 2016. Efforts included captive breeding, wild reinforcement, habitat conservation, and other recovery measures.

See Related: Snow Leopard: Why Is It Endangered?

20. Critical Habitat of Buena Vista Lake Ornate Shrew

Buena Vista Lake shrew

The Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew is a little mouse-sized mammal found solely in the San Joaquin Valley’s Tulare Basin. The shrew’s historical range is assumed to be the damp habitat surrounding the wetlands of Kern, Buena Vista, Goose, and Tulare lakes on the San Joaquin Valley floor. Most of the shrew’s natural wetland habitat has been drained and turned into farmland. They can also no longer be an appropriate habitat because of vegetation changes and the influx of non-native plant species.

It is one of nine ornate shrew subspecies and a member of the red-toothed shrew subfamily. It is named because of the reddish, iron-based pigment supposed to reinforce their tooth enamel and give their teeth a red tint. To protect itself from predators, the Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew requires extensive ground cover and moist soil. The habitat supports various food populations of insects, earthworms, and other tiny invertebrates.

21. Critical Habitat of Marbled Murrelet

Marbled Murrelet

The Marbled Murrelet occurs in California, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon. In Washington, the Marbled Murrelet population is small and falling. Their numbers were impacted by the loss of mature and old forest habitats. They have a breeding affinity with old forests. The availability of food in the maritime environment may also have an impact on population status.

The WDFW’s Priority Habitat and Species Program has designated this species as a Priority Species. Priority species need conservation measures to ensure their survival. Their population is low, they’re susceptible to habitat disturbance, and they’re used for other things.

22. Critical Habitat of Southwestern Willow Flycatcher

Soutwestern Willow Flycatcher

The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher is a neotropical migratory breed. It lives in riparian habitats across the American southwest. Their present breeding range includes southern California, southern Utah, southern Nevada, Arizona, southwestern Colorado, and New Mexico.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service amended essential flycatcher habitat in January 2013. This follows prior designations in 1997 and 2005. The current critical habitat designation is based on Recovery Plan goals. It includes 1,975 stream kilometers across Arizona, New Mexico, and the southern parts of Nevada, Utah, California, and Colorado.


What are critical habitats?

Critical habitats are critical to the survival of federally listed vulnerable and endangered species. Critical habitats can be occupied areas or unoccupied areas. They are designated to protect threatened wildlife. Federal agencies must avoid destruction or “adverse modification” of critical habitat when carrying out federally sponsored and allowed actions.

Why are unoccupied areas designated critical habitats?

Designating unoccupied areas as critical habitats is only considered when the number of areas occupied by the species would not be sufficient to ensure the conservation of the species.

How do critical habitat designations affect land ownership?

Critical habitat designations have little effect on private lands. Designating critical habitats does not mandate public or government access to private lands. It does not allow the establishment of a refuge, wildlife reserve or preserve, or conservation area.

How are critical habitats determined?

Areas that the species currently inhabits are considered for determining critical habitat. The physical and biological characteristics a species requires for life processes and effective reproduction are considered.

Related Resources

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