No matter where you fall on pumpkin spice, autumn has some universal hallmarks: cooler temperatures, leaves turning colors and sunsets arriving earlier and earlier. And across the U.S., fall is also the start of migration for many wildlife, triggering the move southward to warmer climates. During their trip, species like the monarch butterfly use of prairie patches in the Midwest on their way to wintering grounds in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. This month thousands of migratory birds will also begin their journey to warmer climates in southern states, using wetlands, marshes, beaches and forests along the way. These stopping grounds, though not used year-round, are essential to the survival of migratory species, like red knots, some of which fly more than 9,300 miles each way. Many of us think of habitat as the space where a species lives, of course! For example, the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow needs large swaths of marsh in Florida. But habitat is so much more. It includes migratory spaces, used as short-term resting and refueling stops, and areas that provide other needs, like clean water upstream of an endangered mussel’s actual home. These habitat areas, though not strictly the home of these species, can still provide valuable resources essential to survival.
While all habitat is important, some is especially crucial to a species’ survival and requires extra safeguarding from human actions. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), when species are designated threatened or endangered, specific lands or waters can be designated as “critical habitat.” These areas then receive additional protections from extreme modification and destruction when federal agencies are involved. But new proposed ESA regulations introduced in the past few months seek to undermine habitat protections in two ways. One would create a weak definition of what constitutes “habitat” that may exclude areas in need of some restoration or areas where species may need to move into in the future as a result of climate change. This would make it more difficult to designate critical habitat. The other proposed regulation would make it easier for industries to lobby to have important areas excluded from critical habitat designations.
This is no time to weaken the protections of the ESA. Species are losing habitat at an alarming rate from habitat degradation and development, invasive species and climate change. Habitat loss is now the leading threat to threatened and endangered species, leaving them with shrinking or shifting ranges, a loss of prey or food and new competition for resources. What was once their home can suddenly become too small, too degraded or too unfamiliar to fully support them. Without viable habitat, we leave these species unable to recover on their own without proper resources or ultimately avoid extinction.
We are experiencing a biodiversity crisis, and up to one million species around the world are at risk of extinction now and in the coming decades. The United States is home to many of those species and protecting habitat is key for the conservation and recovery of those species who find themselves imperiled by today’s threats. To save these species from extinction, they need to have a home to return to - one that affords them the space and resources they need to survive. Think of our shorebirds, like the Cape Sable seaside sparrow: It stands little chance of rebounding if we’ve reduced its range to smaller and smaller portions of marshy prairie, critical areas it depends on are left without protections because they need restoration or industry interests are able to get those areas excluded. The ESA was created to conserve and recover not just these species, but the ecosystems they depend on. Yet if passed, these new regulations would make it harder to provide protections for those crucial ecosystems and only hamper and contribute to species’ demise.
Thankfully, you can help protect these key areas for imperiled species. Add your voice to the fight to protect critical habitat, and petition for ESA regulations that aid species in their journey to recovery so that imperiled wildlife have a fighting chance.