On June 28, 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released draft revisions to their joint Habitat Conservation Planning Handbook (Handbook).  The proposed revisions are intended to address concerns raised by the regulated community regarding the habitat conservation plan (HCP) program implemented under section 10 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

To apply for an incidental take permit under ESA section 10(a)(1)(B), an applicant must develop an HCP.  The Handbook, initially released in 1996 and revised by addendum in July 2000, is intended to instruct FWS and NMFS staff on how to assist applicants in developing HCPs in an efficient and effective manner, while ensuring adequate conservation for listed species.  According to FWS and NMFS, the proposed Handbook revisions:

  • Emphasize the benefits of pre-planning before jumping directly into HCP development;
  • Streamline the incidental take permit issuance process;
  • Clarify the concept of “maximum extent possible”;
  • Ensure consistency with other applicable FWS and NMFS policies;
  • Clarify the use of implementing agreements;
  • Update and clarify permit duration;
  • Provide guidance on addressing climate change; and
  • Provide guidance on when to initiate review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

According to FWS and NMFS, the proposed revisions are intended to address concerns raised by the regulated community, including that HCPs take too long to develop; implementation is too expensive; applicants perceive lack of certainty; and the benefits of the HCP program are not readily apparent to internal or external stakeholders.  The agencies are accepting comments on the proposed revisions until August 29, 2016.