The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a final rule on February 24, 2016 designating critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for two threatened species—lower Columbia River coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) and Puget Sound steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss). NMFS designated approximately 2,300 stream miles of freshwater and estuarine habitat in Oregon and Washington for the lower Columbia River coho, as well as approximately 2,031 stream miles of freshwater and estuarine habitat in Puget Sound, Washington for the Puget Sound steelhead. NMFS excluded a number of particular areas from the designations based upon a determination that the benefits of exclusion outweighed the benefits of inclusion and such exclusions would not result in the extinction of the species. Nearly all lands covered by habitat conservation plans were excluded, as were areas located on Indian lands. In total, nearly 50 percent of the critical habitat for Puget Sound steelhead and nearly 30 percent of the critical habitat for lower Columbia coho was excluded (1,569 and 1,045 stream miles, respectively) from the critical habitat designations.
These critical habitat designations follow closely behind NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s finalization of two regulations and a policy earlier this month that collectively govern the designation of critical habitat and exclusions from critical habitat designations. It is notable that nearly all areas designated as critical habitat for both the Columbia River coho and Puget Sound steelhead are deemed “occupied” by NMFS and are considered by NMFS to contain physical and biological features essential to the conservation of the species that may require special management considerations or protection. Only one unoccupied area was identified as essential for the conservation of Puget Sound steelhead and therefore included in the critical habitat designation.