A new federal policy proposed will help clarify which species or populations of species are eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act and will provide for earlier and more effective opportunities to conserve declining species.

The public is invited to comment on the policy, proposed by the Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), the two federal agencies responsible for administering the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Comments will be accepted for the next 60 days.

The proposed policy will define the key phrase “significant portion of its range” in the ESA and provide consistency for how it should be applied, aiding the agencies in making decisions on whether to add or remove species from the federal list of threatened and endangered wildlife and plants. The phrase is not defined in the ESA, but appears in the statutory definitions of “endangered species” and “threatened species” in the ESA.

The policy would clarify that the FWS and NOAA Fisheries could list a species if it is endangered or threatened in a “significant portion of its range,” even if that species is not endangered or threatened throughout all its range. Under the proposed policy, a portion of the range of any given species would be defined as “significant” if its contribution to the viability of the species is so important that, without that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction. While the services expect this circumstance to arise infrequently, this policy interpretation will allow ESA protections to help species in trouble before large-scale decline occurs throughout the species’ entire range.

“This proposed interpretation will provide consistency and clarity for the services and our partners, while making more effective use of our resources and improving our ability to protect and recover species before they are on the brink of extinction,” said  Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “By taking action to protect imperiled native fish, wildlife and plants, we can ensure a healthy future for our communities and protect treasured landscapes for future generations.”

“A clear and consistent policy will help our partners and improve the process of evaluating species status under the Endangered Species Act,” said Eric Schwaab, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries.

Uncertainty about the meaning of this important phrase has led to debate and litigation. A formal opinion developed by the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior (known as the “M-Opinion”) had been applied by the FWS since March 16, 2007. But the M-Opinion was withdrawn on May 4, 2011, after two courts rejected key aspects of it. NOAA Fisheries has never applied the FWS interpretation, nor did it issue separate guidance, instead relying on a general understanding similar to the policy interpretation in the proposal.