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What is a Critical Habitat? Everything You Need to Know

Critical habitats are particular regions crucial to the conservation of an endangered species. The primary purpose of critical habitats is to protect these species in a secure area. It helps them to thrive safely without the threat of extinction.

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.

What is a Critical Habitat?

Wet Land Habitat

The gist of the critical habitat definition is an area with certain biological features essential to conserving an endangered species. Areas designated as critical habitats may require 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 is responsible for protecting them.

If they find a place with potential physical and biological features, they designate the place as critical habitat for 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. Therefore, if a place is deep and has enough biodiversity to support the right whales, the authorities may designate the area to be suitable critical habitat for the whales.

See Related: Habitat Loss Solutions You Need to Know

Why is a Critical Habitat important for endangered species? 

All endangered species are 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.

See Related: Different Types of Habitats Around the World

Critical Habitat Designation Process

Group of Penguin

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 Requirements

There are several critical habitat requirements for a particular area to be selected. The first requirement is to have the right physical or biological features. Then, the best scientific data available determines the possibility.

The proposed critical habitat must contain enough resources to accommodate the species without it being permanently 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, of designated critical habitats. The aforementioned federal agencies have to bear the cost of these habitats.

Unfortunately, federal funding frequently isn’t enough. 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 cannot build and construct anything without the approval of a federal agency.

That leads to project delays and often cancellations. If the authority decides to revise critical habitat plans, they can restart the project. Critical habitat designation can be a threat to land ownership, real estate businesses, oil pipelines, mining companies, and everything else in between.

Some claim that the impacts are only noticeable in the presence of the federal nexus. 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 me 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 your 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, such as $30, 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 the 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 is noticeably absent. It seems 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 is insufficient.

Declaring private land as a 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. Despite the laws against hunting protected species in critical habitats, some people tend to enjoy hunting several fleshy animals for their meat, skin, fur, teeth, you name it. Laws are sometimes not strict enough to punish the lawbreakers. 

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

12 Critical habitats in the US

There are a lot of critical habitat examples across the US, the North Pacific Ocean – and beyond. And there are some animals 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 all 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, Virgin Islands area as critical habitat. Parts of the United States’s 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 the sea turtles were to protect their foraging habitats. One of the steps is to reduce the access of 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 rigth 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 the sound. But they lose 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 has introduced a designated critical habitat in South Dakota and works with private landowners to ensure the species’ survival. In addition, 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 not widespread. 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 the 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 the red wolves include forests, prairies, hilltops, or mountains. However, the primary or the 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, all under the protection of the NOAA Fisheries Department. In addition, loggerheads have a high population density in the United States, Bahamas, and Mexico.

One of the biggest threats to sea turtles is humans. Their prized by some hunters for their delicious meat. Even their eggs are poached by black marketeers. 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 the 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 asRedwood 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.

From Lexington to Nebraska are the designated critical habitats for them. Their habitat includes marshes, wetlands, and praries.

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 the western parts of 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. Loss of mountain bog habitats, green pitcher plants, and such 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 a critical habitat. 

See Related: Types of Turtles Around the World

12. Blanding’s turtle

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

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

Among the main threats to them is logging, however, 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, all of these are important (and profitable) contributors to the endangerment of these species. 

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

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