“EU environment legislation: The term ‘favourable conservation status’ for species - Researchers clear up Misinterpretations”

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22 Jun

The latest issue of “Science for Environment Policy" brings an informative article about the Habitats Directive’s concept “Favourable Conservation Status” (FCS). Law and ecology researchers have teamed up to help clarify some of the most disputed aspects of this term for species.

The researchers suggest that their investigation is also relevant to the Birds Directive, arguing that the Birds Directive makes use of less precise terms than ‘favourable conservation status’, but Commission guidance for the Habitats Directive states that ‘the principles underpinning [FCS] are equally applicable in relation to the objective of [the Birds Directive].’ 

Article 1(i) of the Habitats Directive has this definition: “conservation status will be taken as ‘favourable’ when: population dynamics data on the species concerned indicate that it is maintaining itself on a long-term basis as a viable component of its natural habitats, and the natural range of the species is neither being reduced nor is likely to be reduced for the foreseeable future, and there is, and will probably continue to be, a sufficiently large habitat to maintain its populations on a long-term basis.” 

The researchers find that aspects of this legal definition are often misinterpreted by scientists, managers and policymakers when put into practice. It can, therefore, be unclear whether FCS has been achieved. 

The researchers have analysed key EU legal texts, including the Directive itself, decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union (in cases of FCS legal disputes) and advisory texts. They explain six aspects of the term as follows: 

1) At what level should FCS be measured? Should FCS be achieved at the European, population or Member State level? 

Suggestion by the researchers: Member States should promote FCS of populations that are either wholly or partly within national borders. This contributes to FCS of species at the European level. 

2) What does it mean for a species to be a ‘viable component of its natural habitat’? 

Suggestion by the researchers: It is important to consider not just a population’s demographic viability, but also its relationship with other species and its habitat. European Commission guidelines recommend using the concept of ‘favourable reference population’ to assess this ecological form of viability. This method includes ecological role as well as population size. 

3) What is ‘long-term basis’? 

Suggestion by the researchers: The Directive does not explicitly state how long a population must remain a viable component of its natural habitat, but its introductory text suggests indefinitely. The researchers also argue that a population must maintain genetic diversity in order to preserve evolutionary potential and avoid extinction

4) What does it mean for a species to ‘maintain itself’? 

Suggestion by the researchers: The word ‘itself’ may suggest that a species must be viable without human intervention, but this is often contested. Most translations of the Directive’s English text into other languages do not use an equivalent word to ‘itself’. The researchers propose that some human intervention is permissible, and sometimes necessary, but it should remain exceptional

5) Should FCS be measured from extinction or carrying capacity? 

Suggestion by the researchers: Carrying capacity — the maximum number of individuals that an area can support — seems to be the best starting point. Commission guidance documents emphasise that FCS must be assessed as ‘distance from some favourable state’, rather than distance from extinction. 

6) Does FCS require that a population approaches historical levels? 

The Directive’s reporting guidelines support the promotion of populations towards historical levels, but it is not legally required. 

"Science for Environment Policy": European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, 3 June 2016 Issue 457, edited by SCU, The University of the West of England, Bristol.

The research paper in full can be read here: 

A Legal-Ecological Understanding of Favourable Conservation Status for Species in Europe” 

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