NWF Legal Victory for Florida Panther Leads to Greater Protections for Salmon, Whales and Sea Turtles

Florida PantherIn 2005, National Wildlife Federation celebrated a major legal victory (pdf) in our fight to save the Florida panther. The case was a landmark moment for NWF, as the court clearly instructed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it needed to look at the impacts of its nationwide dredge and fill permits on endangered species. While we filed the case to help save the Florida panther, we knew the outcome would have far-reaching consequences for many other species of fish and wildlife.

Jump forward seven years to today, and we are finally seeing the payoff of that court victory. The National Marine Fisheries Service just released a Biological Opinion (pdf) on the effects of the Army Corps’ Nationwide Permits (NWP) program. The results, which are no surprise to NWF, reveal that the NWP program is jeopardizing imperiled species such as salmon, sea lions and sea turtles.

To understand what this means, you need to first understand a few things about the Corps’ permitting process.

Death by a million cuts

Say you are a developer and you want to fill in a wetland so you can erect a building or stabilize a streambank with riprap. You might assume you need to go through the rigorous process of getting an individual permit from the Corps of Engineers, right? Not necessarily. If this specific activity falls into one of the 48 categories given blanket approval by the Corps under its NWP program, you may be able to proceed with little or no review by the Corps. Get ready for your rubber stamp! [Fun fact: until recently, mountaintop removal operations were given blanket authorization to dump their mining waste into streams and waterways under the Nationwide Permit program.]

Sockeye Salmon by Dan Bennett

The Corps of Engineers has argued that the NWP program allows only those activities with minimal environmental impact to move forward. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service has found the Corps has not taken steps to ensure that the impact of these permits do not imperil endangered and threatened fish and wildlife.

As NWF’s Jim Murphy explains:

“We are talking about death by a million cuts with many of these nationwide permits. The destruction of habitat in small increments over time is having substantial impacts on threatened and endangered species like salmon, sea turtles, least terns, piping plovers and even beach mice.”

What happens now?

The Corps must start consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Service on a region-by-region basis to adjust these permits and ensure they do not jeopardize the continued existence of endangered and threatened species. This means Corps districts must start accounting for the impacts, including cumulative impacts, of the use of Nationwide Permits on imperiled species, and stop using nationwide permits in ways that jeopardize those species.  As such, the use of these expedited permits may no longer be allowed in some circumstances where they are now used.

All of this is great news for wildlife, but one key piece is still missing. The Endangered Species Act requires consultation by the Corps with both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which considers impacts on inland species like interior least tern and piping plovers. So far, the latter has yet to weigh in on the issue. Until they take their seat at the table, it will be difficult to achieve the full range of species’ protections necessary to ensure use of these permits is not putting wildlife at risk.

Take ActionThere are fewer than 200 Florida panthers left in the wild–making it one of the country’s most critically endangered species. You have the power to help save the Florida panther — make sure crucial conservation programs are not gutted by Congress’ efforts to reduce the federal deficit.