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In September 2003, the Foundation was awarded a $200,000 federal grant from the Service to develop a draft conceptual Williamson County RHCP, including conducting numerous pre-permit application activities and related items. The conceptual RHCP was completed and delivered to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Foundation in November 2004. In September 2004, the Foundation was awarded an approximately $1,000,000 federal grant from the Service to complete and process the final RHCP, Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and section 10(a) permit application in order to effectively and efficiently implement the Foundation's conservation actions. These federal grants require a 25% local match, which can be provided using in-kind services, such as by using County staff resources.
Those species listed on the permit, and unlisted species that have been adequately addressed in an HCP as though they were listed, and are therefore included on the permit or, alternately, for which assurances are provided to the permittee that such species will be added to the permit if listed under certain circumstances. "Covered species" are subject to the assurances of the "No Surprises" rule.
Under the No Surprises rule, the Service provides assurances to permittees that they will not be required to commit additional lands, waters, funds, or restrictions on lands beyond those contemplated at the time the permit was issued to mitigate the effects of unforeseen circumstances on threatened or endangered species. These assurances will be applicable to those species (listed and non-listed) found to be "adequately covered" under the HCP. "Adequately covered" refers to any species addressed in an HCP, provided that the HCP satisfied the permit issuance criteria under section 10(a)(2)(B) of the ESA as to that species.
The ESA requires the Secretary of the Interior, who acts through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), to make various decisions about the status and protection of animal and plant species. ESA sections 3(15), 4(a)(2). The Service administers the following core programs in that regard:
The central prohibitory ESA provision is section 9, that prohibits the "take" of a listed species. By regulation, the Service has defined take to include habitat destruction or modification that actually results in death or injury to a member of the species. Private landowners, and state or local governments who want to conduct activities on their land that might incidentally "take" a species listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA may obtain an incidental take permit (also commonly referred to as a "10(a) permit") from the Service prior to conducting such activities. To obtain a permit, the applicant must develop a habitat conservation plan (HCP) that is designed to minimize and mitigate the impacts of the taking sought to be authorized. The HCP process allows activities to proceed while promoting the conservation of listed species.
The HCP Handbook notes that the cumulative total HCP processing requirements are greater when regional or area-wide activities are permitted through individual HCPs and related permits, rather than comprehensively under an RHCP. The benefits of an RHCP include the following:
A Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) routinely involves one individual or entity as an applicant who develops the HCP to accompany an incidental take permit to cover actions for a single project in a discrete area. Although the ESA does not specifically mention Regional Habitat Conservation Plans (RHCP), the Endangered Species Habitat Conservation Planning Handbook issued by the Service in November 1996, as supplemented by the Addendum to HCP Handbook dated June 2000 (HCP Handbook) does discuss them. In contrast to individual HCPs, an RHCP often covers a larger geographic area, numerous landowners, and multiple species. Local or regional authorities or entities are often the applicant/permittee and often may be relied upon to implement the mitigation plan under an RHCP. The HCP Handbook states as one of its "guiding principles" that the Service encourages state and local governments and private landowners to undertake regional and multi-species RHCPs.
The Williamson County Conservation Foundation (formerly known as the Williamson County Karst Foundation) was formed in December 2002 for the purpose of providing for conservation and perhaps the eventual recovery of endangered and threatened species in Williamson County. The Foundation is overseen by a seven-member Board of Directors, including two Williamson County Commissioners.
The development of a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is a complex legal and biological process involving multiple provisions of federal and state law. In addition, the Service has issued extensive guidance concerning HCP development. The key legal requirements for the development of an HCP can be divided into four basic categories:
Each of these four areas includes procedural as well as substantive criteria that will be followed in developing and implementing the Williamson County RHCP.
Currently, six federally listed endangered species occur in Williamson County, Texas. The listed endangered species include: three karst invertebrate species including the Bone Cave harvestman (Texella reyesi), Tooth Cave ground beetle (Rhadine persephone), and the Coffin Cave mold beetle (Batrisodes texanus); two songbirds, the golden-cheeked warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia), and the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapillus); and one additional bird, the whooping crane (Grus Americana). There is one candidate species, the Georgetown salamander (Eurycea naufragia) known to occur in Williamson County. The Williamson County RHCP will seek to include these and other rare species as covered species.