The Endangered Species Act 101: Habitat

Wildlife depend on habitat to survive. Megan Evansen, our Conservation Science & Policy Analyst, looks at the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep as an example of how endangered species rely on critical habitat for food and shelter.

Click to view video transcript Loss of habitat is the leading threat to listed species under the Endangered Species Act, and protecting it is key to the conservation and recovery of threatened and endangered species.

The endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, for example, depend on the steep cliffs of southern California to escape from predators and to find vegetation year-round.

And while all habitat plays a role in species survival, some of it - like the cliffs that provide foraging opportunities for the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep - is crucial for species to recover.

Under the ESA, areas deemed essential to the conservation of the species are defined as “critical habitat.”

Critical habitat contains the physical or biological features essential to the species and that may require special management or protections.

Critical habitat is relevant to section 7 of the ESA, which keeps listed species populations from being jeopardized by a federal action and ensures that federal action avoids destruction, or “adverse modification” of any habitat designated as critical habitat.

While it’s important to note what critical habitat is, it’s equally important to note what it isn’t.

Designating an area as critical habitat does not establish a refuge or sanctuary for a species - critical habitat can still be modified or developed to a degree. It simply can’t be completely destroyed or badly modified by federal actions.

And yes! You heard that right.

Protections for critical habitat only apply to actions carried out by federal agencies or those that require a Federal permit or funding. Labeling sections of habitat as “critical” is a way to ensure that federal agencies take special care in helping to conserve listed species.

Taking special precautions with critical habitat is one of the many strengths of the ESA that helps to conserve species.

Wildlife depend on habitat to survive, and providing protections for the most essential parts of their habitat is key to moving the needle closer to recovery for these species.

Without critical habitat protections, species like the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep might have lost the most crucial parts of their home ranges.

Stay tuned for actions you can take to help protect the ESA and wildlife - or watch the rest of the series to learn more about the ESA!

Meg Evansen
Conservation Science and Policy Analyst

As the Conservation Science and Policy Analyst in the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders, Meg assists with the analysis of scientific research and policy implementation to find new and creative solutions for wildlife conservation.