The distressing plight of an endangered California frog offers a clear window on the potential environmental cost of a new Obama administration proposal that would give almost everyone a free pass to destroy any and every endangered species’ home.

Once common along most of the Coast Range and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, California red-legged frogs were protected as a threatened species following a decline of over 90 percent and lost three-quarters of their habitat.  In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service designated 1.6 million acres as critical habitat for the frog — these last places are the best hope to save this species.

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How many acres of the frog’s remaining breeding ponds and wetlands should be filled for development, and how many acres of upland feeding area should be allowed to be clear-cut even if this destruction puts the frog on the fast track to extinction?

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s answer appears to be: Destroy as much as you want, as long as you do it a little bit at a time.  

Most people would expect that the designation of critical habitat would mean that those areas would receive a high standard of protection, after all most endangered species only get protected after they have lost massive amounts of historic habitat — development would only occur if it was absolutely necessary and fully mitigated. 

But the Obama administration is set on a course that would okay a wide range of habitat destruction as long as developers do it a piece at a time so no really notices the impact until it’s too late. For the red-legged frog and countless other endangered species, it really doesn’t matter if your home is destroyed in one fell swoop, or 1 percent at a time, the end result is the same — extinction. 

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies must ensure that the actions they fund, permit, and carry out do not result in the “destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat.  Unfortunately, the administration has developed a wrong-headed proposal that will enable more habitat destruction by redefining adverse modification as only those actions considered to potentially harm the entirety of a species’ designated critical habitat.  This begs the question: how often does any development project harm the entirety of a species’ habitat?  The answer is: almost never — only when a species has declined to its last single stronghold can a project, like a large dam, wipe it out. This means that everything else is okay. 

Want to clear-cut 1,000 acres of land designated as critical habitat for the red-legged frogs? No problem.  Want to suck dry a creek for a mining project?  Go right ahead.  Want to fill a 100 acre wetland for a shopping mall?  That’s okay too.  Under the Obama proposal, none of these would be stopped or even mitigated, because none of them have the potential to harm the frog’s entire critical habitat.  What’s worse about this poorly considered proposal is that federal regulators don’t even try to keep track of impacts to critical habitat. The Government Accountability Office concluded in 2009 that the Fish and Wildlife Service has virtually no ability to track harms to endangered species and their habitats. 

Just last month, my employer, the Center for Biological Diversity, issued a disturbing new report detailing how the Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps have sidestepped required analysis of cumulative impacts on endangered manatees in favor of expediting permits to facilitate watercraft access which lead to deadly collisions with boats.  In fact, the agencies can’t even tell you how many new structures have been build — because they don’t track it. As a result, while boat strikes remain the leading cause of manatee deaths, federal and state regulators aren’t even bothering to keep track of the cumulative impacts of the thousands of new docks, piers and boat ramps permitted in recent years.

To date, thanks in no small part to strong protections for critical habitats, the Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects and put many on the road to recovery. Research has demonstrated that species are twice as likely to be on the road to recovery if they have critical habitat designated.

Without doubt, the Obama administration proposal would significantly diminish the power of one of our most important and proven tools for preserving the habitats endangered species need to survive and recover – the protection of habitat. 

Here amid a never-before-seen human-caused extinction crisis in which species are disappearing at thousands of times the historic rate, the last thing we need is to make it easier to destroy the habitats critical to preserving the biological diversity we all depend on for a healthy planet.

Hartl is endangered species policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity.