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Critical Habitat

When an area is designated as critical habitat, what does that mean, and how does it help whales and dolphins?

Just like you need to have a safe environment to live, work, and play in, so do endangered species. “Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. When a species is listed under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), the government designates specific areas necessary for the conservation and recovery of that species, and refers to those areas as critical habitat.

Critical habitat refers to the physical, chemical and biological features that are essential for the survival and reproduction of endangered species.

What if humans were endangered?

If humans were considered endangered, our critical habitat would be the areas where we live and work, and the areas we traverse to get between the two. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets standards to ensure our work "habitats" are safe and the Federal Housing Administration sets standards for safe homes.

So what about the critical habitat of endangered species?

Under the Endangered Species Act, the US government can set standards to manage activities within critical habitat to make sure it is safe for endangered species. NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) is the US Agency responsible for protecting whales and designating critical habitat for endangered whales, like the Southern Resident orca (Southern Resident killer whale or SRKW).

Copywrite Jeff Ventre
Copywrite Jeff Ventre
Copywrite CWR-Rob Lott
Copywrite CWR-Rob Lott
Copywritw Candice Emmons / NOAA
Copywritw Candice Emmons / NOAA

Critical habitat designations are sometimes misunderstood as duplicating protections already provided under the ESA. However, critical habitat affords species additional protections.

An important benefit of designating critical habitat is that federal agencies must clearly identify the physical, chemical and biological features necessary for the species' reproduction and survival. By fully understanding what habitat features are essential, the agencies are in a better position to identify what is needed to preserve, protect or enhance those features required for the species’ survival, reproduction and recovery.

Critical habitat protects the “home” of the species, not the species itself. Critical habitat includes the current range of the species, but it can also include the historic range and other important areas outside their range. Critical habitat ensures that the biological features (e.g. prey) and physical features (e.g. topography and water supplies) of the animals’ homes are protected.

The Southern Resident Orcas (also known as Southern Resident kiler whales/SRKW) need additional critical habitat.


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