February 24, 2021
Peter Nelson

Habitat – the natural home of an animal or the area that meets all its ecological needs – is a critical piece of the puzzle when trying to prevent biodiversity loss, stop extinctions and put species back on track for recovery. And yet the Trump administration spent four years developing, drilling, selling off and otherwise degrading federal lands that serve as important habitat for imperiled species. From attempting to build roads through national wildlife refuges to downsizing national monuments, protections for valuable wild lands were ignored and downright flouted.

The work is cut out for the Biden administration to shore up habitat protections on federal lands.

View of Cedar Mesa - Bears Ears National Monument - Utah
Bob Wick/BLM

On day one as part of his executive orders on the environment and climate crisis, President Biden directed the Secretary of the Interior to review the three national monuments reduced under the Trump administration. Restoring the lawful boundaries will reestablish protections for numerous at-risk wildlife species. The unique and diverse geography and ecosystems of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments help protect habitat for countless plants and animals including imperiled species such as the southwestern willow flycatcher, greater sage-grouse, California condor, Sonoran pronghorn and Mexican spotted owl. Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is the first and only marine national monument designated in the Atlantic Ocean, home to a tremendous diversity and richness of ocean life, including deep-sea cold-water coral reefs, seabirds such as the Atlantic puffin, imperiled sea turtles and whales, and breeding stocks of fish that sustain commercial and recreational fisheries.

Atlantic puffin with fish - Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge
Fred Yost/USFWS

President Biden’s early executive orders also included reversing the “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” placing a temporary moratorium on all activities of the Federal Government relating to drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, pausing new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore waters, halting wall construction along our southern border, and setting a national goal to conserve at least 30% of our lands and waters by 2030. And just last week, President Biden announced he would halt the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) rulemaking process proposed by the previous administration, leaving the original plan that was supported by diverse groups, intact.

The federal public lands systems are essential to conserving biodiversity and addressing the escalating climate crisis, and the Biden-Harris administration’s initial announcements are steps in the right direction. But urgent action is still needed to turn things around for habitat in the United States.

Pronghorn in Sagebrush Sea
Tom Koerner/USFWS

We need to reprioritize conservation on federal lands and turn away from the “energy dominance” agenda of the Trump administration. Protecting wildlife and habitat diversity requires new rules and policies that prioritize management of public lands—including multiple-use lands such as the National Forest System and National System of Public Lands (administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM))—for wildlife conservation and recovery, climate change mitigation and carbon protection, and habitat connectivity. The administration should direct the Forest Service to immediately halt old forest logging in the national forest carbon strongholds of Tongass and the Pacific Northwest and initiate rulemakings for the Forest Service and BLM to identify and protect areas on their lands essential for carbon storage, biodiversity and species recovery and climate adaptation, including designation of climate refugia and connecting landscapes. 

The administration should prioritize expanding the National Wildlife Refuge System to ensure that this network of lands dedicated to the protection of wildlife and habitats can sustain biodiversity in the face of climate change and other threats. Many of these refuges are the only place in the world--or a critical stronghold--for species on the edge of extinction and 513 ESA-listed species are found or are dependent on at least 444 refuges. Some refuges harbor a particularly high diversity of ESA-listed species, underscoring their importance not just to species like whooping crane and red wolf, but all biodiversity. 

Red wolf in Alligator River NWR
FWS

Expanding the refuge system should start in California with Western Riverside County National Wildlife Refuge. This newly proposed urban refuge in Riverside County would preserve nearly 500,000 acres for 146 species, 33 of which are threatened or endangered and conserve wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity. Establishment of this national wildlife refuge will also provide more opportunities to experience nature in this highly urbanized region and would further the California and national 30x30 goals of habitat protection and equitable access. Western Riverside County National Wildlife Refuge would become the sixth largest wildlife refuge in the contiguous United States and the second largest urban refuge in the nation.

And our nation cannot confront the biodiversity crisis and meet the 30x30 goal without enhancing wildlife conservation on private lands. More than two-thirds of the land in the Lower 48 is under private ownership, and more than 70% of federally listed species depend on private lands. Private lands support the last remnants of imperiled ecosystems, such as tallgrass and shortgrass prairies and longleaf pine and bottomland hardwood forests. Because only 3% of protected areas in the U.S. are on private lands, however, natural areas on private lands are disappearing quickly. The Biden administration should work with Congress to prioritize and incentivize the conservation of at-risk species, reimburse nonlethal human-wildlife conflict reduction practices, and dramatically increase federal funding for private lands conservation programs under the Farm Bill.

Aspens are reflected in Shallow Creek west of Creede, CO
USFS

To implement these sweeping changes in lands conservation policy, the Biden administration needs to continue to establish key leadership positions and offices for biodiversity and climate change in the federal land management agencies and ensure the close engagement of the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture. Defenders applauds the historic nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior and looks forward to working with her to protect America’s public lands and wildlife. A national biodiversity strategy should include robust protections for habitat and efforts to combat climate change. The administration must also direct all federal land management agencies to provide for robust public engagement in their decision-making and take actions to ensure just and equitable access to federal lands and resources.


This is part of a series about where we hope the Biden-Harris administration will take action for wildlife in the first 100 days. Read more:

← Restoring Bedrock Environmental Laws     Building Resilience →

Author(s)

Peter Nelson

Peter Nelson

Director of Federal Lands
Peter Nelson leads Defenders' efforts to protect wildlife habitat and biodiversity on federal public lands.
comments

Follow Defenders of Wildlife