The ESA defines critical habitat under section 3(5)(A) as:
‘‘(i) The specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species, at the time it is listed* * *, on which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection; and (ii) specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed* * * upon a determination by the Secretary [of Commerce] that such areas are essential for the conservation of the species.’’
Section 4(b)(2) of the ESA requires us to designate critical habitat for threatened and endangered species ‘‘on the basis of the best scientific data available and after taking into consideration the economic impact, the impact on national security, and any other relevant impact, of specifying any particular area as critical habitat.’’ This section grants the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary) discretion to exclude any area from critical habitat if he determines ‘‘the benefits of such exclusion outweigh the benefits of specifying such area as part of the critical habitat.’’ The Secretary’s discretion is limited, as he may not exclude areas that ‘‘will result in the extinction of the species.’’
The lack of research on Puget Sound Steelhead and migration should allow for a liberal approach to protecting habitat since NOAA has acknowledged that The near shore migration pattern of Puget Sound steelhead is not well understood, but it is generally thought that smolts move quickly offshore, bypassing the extended estuary transition stage which many other salmonids need (Hartt and Dell, 1986). Also admitting that Steelhead oceanic migration patterns are also poorly understood.
Once critical habitat is designated, section 7 of the ESA requires Federal agencies to ensure they do not fund, authorize, or carry out any actions that will destroy or adversely modify that habitat. This requirement is in addition to the section 7 requirement that Federal agencies ensure their actions do not jeopardize the continued existence of listed species.
The critical habitat for Puget Sound Steelhead will overlap with some of the already designated Puget Sound Chinook critical habitat. However, wild steelhead also use smaller tributaries and upper watershed areas for spawning and nursery habitat exclusive of Chinook salmon. The WSC hopes that Puget Sound Steelhead critical habitat will be managed with recovery as the paramount emphasis for these ESA listed species.
The WSC shared several areas of concern that should be included in the Puget Sound steelhead Critical Habitat. The areas for consideration included:
• The area south of the Snohomish River mouth to include the entire eastern shore south to include the Mukilteo ferry terminal. This area should expand to Whidbey Island, as this area is a staging point for summer steelhead entering and winter kelts leaving the Snohomish drainage.
• Commencement and Elliot Bays should be included as critical habitat as both are staging areas for Puyallup and Green River Steelhead. These areas are highly industrialized, but must be included.
• Critical habitat in all rivers should be protected by standard flows for each season that meets the necessary standards for steelhead for all their riverine life history periods. Maintaining healthy Salmonid flows that corresponded with historical daily and seasonal natural flows instead of dam discharges creating flood and dewater issues negatively impacting critical habitat and its use by wild steelhead.
The WSC also commented on the associated land practices near the critical habitat rivers and streams. While a critical habitat designation may be placed on certain drainages, the corresponding development, logging, and other land use practices can still adversely affect the critical habitat. NOAA should identify methods to stabilize areas prone to land slides, especially those that have or are prone to slide into the rivers and leave large amounts of debris and sediment. These areas are often associated with logging, roads, and other land practices that have cut the toe or other sections of hillsides and also remove the natural holding structures as tree roots.
The WSC encouraged NOAA to look beyond the rivers and streams that both Chinook and Steelhead inhabit by incorporating areas of critical habitat associated with water quality for now and the future. NOAA should look at historical river channels as most have been reduced to straighter channels that have higher velocities and fewer pool and riffle areas. Rivers often run straight towards the sea rather than follow their historical meandering characteristic and side channels, which is necessary for producing both spawning and rearing habitat. Another emphasis is looking at ways to improve nursery habitat through the addition of large woody debris, large rocks and other substrates and obstructions that form the needed habitat for the various salmonid species.
Preserving river corridors through reforestation, habitat restoration, habitat preservation and natural flood control will ensure quality habitat for the future and prevent critical habitat from further degradation that will be imperative in PS Steelhead long term run health.
If Puget Sound Steelhead are to truly recover, then any economic benefits should not stand in the way of critical habitat designation.