New Rules Hold Potential to Safeguard Endangered Species and Critical Habitats

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Op Ed by Beth Brady, PhD
Senior Science and Conservation Associate, Save the Manatee Club

In 2019, the United Nations released a report revealing that approximately 1 million animal and plant species are currently facing the threat of extinction, with some at risk within mere decades. Over the past decade alone, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared 160 species extinct, with human activities primarily to blame for this loss. The changes made to the rules of the Endangered Species Act on April 5, 2024, hold significant potential for safeguarding the countless animal and plant species unable to advocate for themselves.

Multiple regulations finalized by the former administration in 2020 underwent revisions. The 2024 revisions reinstated the “blanket rule,” extending the same protections to threatened species as those afforded to endangered species. Additionally, the regulations removed the requirement to factor in economic impacts when assessing whether a species should be classified as endangered or threatened. Moreover, they also revised the criteria for identifying critical habitat and unoccupied critical habitat. Critical habitat is an area essential for a species survival and recovery. Unoccupied critical habitat is an area that may become important if the current habitat becomes degraded or impacted by climate change or other adverse factors.

Originally, the Endangered Species Act strictly prohibited alterations to designated critical habitat. Currently, individuals or organizations have the option to apply for permits to conduct activities within critical habitats, under the condition that these activities do not pose a threat to any listed species or their habitats. In cases where habitat impact is expected, consultation with either the US Fish and Wildlife Service or NOAA is mandatory. However, a recent four-year study revealed that out of more than 81,000 consultations, only two permits were flagged as causing adverse or destruction of habitat. Consequently, this allows critical habitat to be gradually fragmented over time.

These changes in the regulations that define critical habitat come at a perilous time for the Florida manatee. Habitat degradation, primarily caused by untreated sewage, septic system leaks, and fertilizer runoff, has resulted in a substantial decline in seagrass throughout Florida. This decline in seagrass triggered an unprecedented mortality event along the east coast of Florida, leading to the starvation-related deaths of over 1500 manatees. As we transition to renewable energy sources, the power plants that provide warm-water habitats for manatees will be taken offline. Natural springs serve as warm-water refuges for manatees, yet numerous springs along the Atlantic Coast have been lost, leaving manatees with limited options. It is imperative to identify both critical and unoccupied habitat that may be essential for manatees in the future to secure their long-term survival.

In an era of political volatility, it’s essential to both understand the importance of critical habitat and to secure its future availability. Species categorized as endangered or threatened and possessing designated critical habitat for two years or longer are twice as likely to experience a population recovery. Therefore, it’s not only integral to preserve recent improvements in regulatory protections but also imperative to secure additional legislation to better safeguard critical habitats for species at risk. While we applaud the recent changes made by the new rules, we implore the service to make additional rule changes to prevent further modifications of critical habitat. Manatees have inhabited and coevolved with our primary seagrass communities for over 45 million years, a span of time longer than human existence. They unquestionably have earned the right to comprehensive protection, along with the diversity of habitats critical to their survival.


Beth Brady is the Senior Science and Conservation Associate at Save the Manatee Club whose work focuses on manatee biology and conservation. She has her PhD from Florida Atlantic University, and her Master’s in Marine Science from Nova Southeastern University.

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