Information for Planning and Consultation (IPaC) Streamlines Endangered Species Act Reviews
|The candy darter is a small, freshwater fish endemic to portions of the upper Kanawha River basin in Virginia and West Virginia.|
Road and bridge projects often cross forests, streams, and other sensitive plant and animal habitats. Under section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Federal agencies (i.e., action agencies) are required to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)1 to ensure that actions they fund, authorize, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitats.
Along with meeting the requirements of section 7(a)(2), interagency consultations with the USFWS help minimize the negative effects of infrastructure projects on species and habitats protected under the ESA. But for many agencies, especially smaller ones without dedicated environmental staff, the process was often complicated and time consuming.
To help streamline the consultation process, USFWS created the Information for Planning and Consultation (IPaC) system—a free, web-based application that provides up-to-date information on ESA protected species, helpful templates, and other useful resources for transportation agencies and their partners. Since its inception, IPaC’s resources have assisted agencies across the United States with completing consultation on thousands of projects. The latest IPaC tool—Consultation Package Builder (CPB)—provides agencies with even more support during the early stages of infrastructure projects.
Early Design Consultation for ESA Compliance
Designing projects while considering potential effects to ESA-listed species and ESA-designated critical habitats is one of the most effective ways to ensure efficient section 7 consultation and overall environmental protection. Early coordination between action agencies and USFWS saves agencies time and money—project designs consider environmental resources from the start, the consultation is more efficient and predictable, and agencies avoid costly modifications and delays during the planning and permitting stages.
USFWS uses tools, like those in IPaC, to collaboratively solve conservation challenges and create opportunities for action agencies to reduce impacts to the ecosystems of listed species through project design.
IPaC’s Three Tools: Streamlining Consultation
IPaC helps agencies, their applicants, and other project proponents prepare for their ESA section 7 consultations during the critical early stages of a transportation project. IPaC facilitates early coordination by providing automated project planning and analysis tools based on the proposed action’s location, possible trust resources in that location (e.g., ESA listed species, migratory birds, wetlands, marine mammals, and USFWS-managed lands like refuges and fish hatcheries), and listed species’ conservation needs. IPaC also facilitates communication among action agencies, project proponents, and the USFWS field office. Creating consultation documents through IPaC improves consistency, transparency, and efficiency for both the action agencies and the USFWS.
|The first step in IPaC is to draw the project location on an interactive mapping tool.|
In IPaC, users begin by drawing their project location on an interactive mapping tool. IPaC uses the project location to gather the relevant information needed to use IPaC’s tools. The three tools available in IPaC are the official species lists (OSLs), determination keys (DKeys), and the new Consultation Package Builder (CPB). These tools can be used sequentially or independently, depending on the action agency’s needs.
An OSL is a letter from the local USFWS field office that helps agencies evaluate potential impacts of their projects. Along with providing a project tracking number, the OSL includes a list of candidate, proposed, threatened, and endangered species, and proposed and designated critical habitats that should be considered under section 7 of the ESA.
Depending on field office preferences, OSLs may also include attached lists of migratory birds of conservation concern, USFWS-managed refuges and fish hatcheries, marine mammals, and wetlands and other aquatic areas of concern under section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The ESA requires an OSL be requested for projects conducted, permitted, funded, or licensed by a Federal agency.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) reviews projects for ESA section 7 compliance every six months or at project development milestones—a process that requires the agency to obtain an up-to-date OSL. Amy Golden, biological resources program manager for VDOT, says “One benefit to IPaC is having a central location to obtain a project OSL. Prior to IPaC, some States would email or write a letter to the field office requesting an OSL, which was time consuming. IPaC makes it easy to obtain an updated OSL for projects.”
Why Use IPaC?
Using IPaC provides several benefits to transportation agencies:
A DKey is a screening tool provided through IPaC that can streamline the consultation process for common project types. DKeys are based on programmatic biological opinions or standing USFWS analyses which are designed to assist action agencies in reaching predetermined consultation outcomes based on an assessment of their project. To use a DKey, an IPaC user answers a series of questions to determine whether a proposed project qualifies for an existing programmatic consultation or analysis. DKeys can be restricted to certain project types, geographic locations, agencies, or species. If a project qualifies for a DKey, the action agency may receive a consistency or concurrence letter, depending on which predetermined consultation outcome they reach.
Lane Masoud of the Michigan Department of Transportation recommends DKeys to local partners, saying “Many of the agencies I work with are small, rural road commissions who lack their own environmental staff. Utilizing IPaC has been extremely helpful. The Michigan DKey, in particular, has reduced how frequently I follow up with an agency to get more information. I really appreciate that the DKeys not only ask questions, but also provide guidance.”
|Texas blind salamanders live in total darkness. Although they have eyes, they are located under their skin, leaving them totally blind. They are only found in Edwards Aquifer in Texas.|
When there are listed species in the project location that have not been addressed by a DKey, IPaC’s new project analysis tool, CPB, can be used to further analyze the project. CPB, which replaces IPaC’s formerly available “impact analysis” tool, walks users step by step through analyzing the potential effects of their project and assists them in making well-informed effect determinations. The end result is a document, typically called a biological assessment (BA) or biological evaluation (BE), that can be submitted to USFWS for consultation. Currently, the user must download this document and submit it by email or mail to the appropriate USFWS field office.
CPB is an optional tool that is helpful for many projects in which some species in the project area have not been covered by a DKey as it assists with writing a BA or BE. CPB both prompts users to populate all of the information needed to conduct the consultation, and provides pertinent information regarding potential effects on species and conservation measures based on the specific work proposed and species in the area.
IPaC Usage Data and Case Studies
In fiscal year 2021, IPaC assisted Federal agencies in carrying out their ESA section 7 responsibilities on more than 123,000 occasions (including OSLs and DKey letters). Based on the helpful information in the DKeys, and—in some cases—through additional consultation with the USFWS field office, action agencies were able to revise their project designs to avoid previously expected adverse impacts to listed species and critical habitats. In many of these instances, after project design revision, the action agency was able to finalize their consultation via a DKey.
USFWS: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Case Study 1: FHWA Bats DKey
FHWA worked with USFWS to develop a DKey based on a programmatic biological opinion specifically for transportation projects that may affect two wide-ranging species of listed bats—the endangered Indiana bat and the threatened Northern long-eared bat (NLEB). This DKey—called “FHWA, FRA, FTA Programmatic Consultation for Transportation Projects Affecting NLEB or Indiana Bat”—is intended for projects and activities funded or authorized by FHWA, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and/or Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that may require consultation with USFWS under section 7 of the ESA. Since the FHWA Bats DKey was published in 2018, use of this DKey accounts for about 40 percent of all projects assessed by DKeys.
For projects within the range of these two bat species, FHWA, FRA, FTA, and their designated representatives begin the consultation process by using IPaC to determine whether their project is covered by this DKey. In FY2021, the DKey assisted users with making the determination that 1,568 projects would have no effect on these two bat species, and it allowed them to complete consultation on an additional 1,688 transportation projects that may affect these two bat species through IPaC. Screening a project in IPaC often takes about an hour, and projects are easy to update. For projects where no other listed species or critical habitats were identified, the Federal agency needed no further coordination with the USFWS. For more information about this DKey, see https://www.fws.gov/node/266042.
Case Study 2: Using CPB to Create an Example BA for Similar Projects
IPaC’s CPB can also be used to create a sample BA that local agencies can use as a template when consulting with USFWS on similar projects. In West Virginia, FHWA, in cooperation with the West Virginia Division of Highways (WVDOH) and the USFWS West Virginia Ecological Services field office, created an example BA in CPB for a commonly occurring project type—bridge replacement. In the future, this example BA will be used to develop BAs for other bridge replacement projects in West Virginia.
|An Indiana bat hibernating on a cave ceiling. Indiana bats hibernate in tight clusters on the ceilings and sides of caves and mines.|
By creating an example BA, FHWA has provided partner agencies in West Virginia with a clear place to start their analyses. The template provides details on the scope and sample language expected by the USFWS, as shown in the following excerpts.
WVDOH described the habitat present in the action area:
“In West Virginia, the Gauley River rises in the Monongahela National Forest on Gauley Mountain in Pocahontas County as three streams, the North, Middle, and South Forks, each of which flows across the southern extremity of Randolph County and converges in Webster County…Within the project area on the Gauley River, the stream substrate is composed of mainly boulder and cobble, with a good amount of sand… The existing piers are founded on bedrock, which is below a layer of sand…The riparian zone is somewhat vegetated and harbors plant life generally associated with riparian corridors, with typical streamside species such as sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), maples (Acer spp.), black cherry (Prunus serotina), willows (Salix spp.), Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica), and various woody shrubs...” QUOTE
The agency also described the project’s purpose:
“The Bolair Bridge has been closed to vehicular traffic since 2017 due to safety concerns. The proposed plan is to demolish and replace the existing bridge over the Gauley River to restore traffic on Webster CR 20/23 in order to maintain residential access, school buses, mail, and emergency services. The new proposed bridge will be a three-span, steel W-beam bridge with a wooden deck supported on two concrete piers…The temporary detour that has been in use since 2017 causes hardship for the community…This detour was not designed for the traveling public as a permanent route.”
WVDOH described how and where anticipated stressors would occur throughout the project area:
“Exposure of bare soil during site preparation activities could increase erosion…The stream characteristics, such as riffles, runs, or pools, will still function normally (USFWS, 2020). Potential habitat changes are possible during construction and restoration activities and will remain until after restoration is completed and fine sediments have been flushed through the watershed by storm events...We will use heavy duty silt fencing, silt socks, dirt bags, and streambank stabilizing measures to avoid sedimentation in the project location…”
WVDOH also analyzed specific effects to the candy darter—a small, colorful fish that is key to the local ecosystem. Candy darters are listed as federally endangered under the ESA and their conservation needs include dissolved oxygen, invertebrates, spring streamflow, shallow water depths, relatively warm water, and substrate from small gravel to boulders. Candy darters are often affected by sedimentation, contamination, and other changes to rivers and streams from transportation activities. Considering all effects that were suggested by USFWS and expected to occur during their bridge construction project, WVDOH reached an effect determination of “likely to adversely affect” for the candy darter.
|Agencies use CPB to analyze species before making an effect determination.|
|Agencies can use the CPB to write conservation measures for the project after species and critical habitat analyses are completed.|
WVDOH used CPB to write conservation measures for the project using language suggested by USFWS. One conservation measure was developed for designing projects to allow fish passage, thereby reducing the barrier effects to the candy darter.
The document generated using IPaC’s CPB contained all the information FHWA and WVDOH needed to complete the review and consultation on this project with the USFWS West Virginia field office. Because the non-Federal partners used CPB in IPaC, the final document was formatted consistently with other BAs and much of the administrative record was automatically recorded in the USFWS project-tracking system.
IPaC users can also share the IPaC project with other non-Federal partners or FHWA before completing the analysis. Future projects can follow this template while filling out CPB (or offline, if needed), which will streamline review time with the USFWS West Virginia field office. In the future, USFWS plans to improve CPB to allow a user to save templates such as this in IPaC so users can start their similar project in CPB from an established template.
Developing an example BA saves the lead Federal agency (in this case, FHWA) and the USFWS field office time and resources because the submitted BA contains the necessary information from the start. Future BAs that are written using the example BA and submitted to FHWA, and subsequently the USFWS West Virginia field office, are likely to be considered complete upon submittal and require less consultation time to review and revise.
IPaC Resources & Contacts
IPaC has two platforms available for action agencies to use: production (or live) IPaC and beta IPaC. Production IPaC is found at https://ipac.ecosphere.fws.gov/ and is intended to be used for real projects where the action agency is ready to analyze a project and send official documents to USFWS. On production IPaC, OSLs and DKey documents are automatically sent to the local field office for their review and are logged in USFWS’s internal project tracking system.
Beta IPaC is found at https://ipacb.ecosphere.fws.gov/ and is intended to be used for testing and training. Beta IPaC has the same functionality as production IPaC, but no official correspondence is created or distributed. Beta IPaC is highly recommended for new users or users who want to test different options in the system.
USFWS offers several on-demand IPaC and ESA section 7 training videos. Links are available through the IPaC homepage (https://ipac.ecosphere.fws.gov/) under “Helpful Videos.”
|The Colorado hookless cactus is a barrel shaped with funnel-shaped or bell-shaped pink to violet flowers.|
The USFWS IPaC team is continuously striving to improve its functionality and tools through new development and incorporating agency feedback. The team is also available to answer questions or schedule demonstrations. To provide feedback, ask questions, or schedule a demonstration, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chellby Kilheffer is a biologist on the national IPaC team. Previously, Chellby completed a Ph.D. in wildlife biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and a Knauss marine policy fellowship.
Victoria Foster is the national IPaC program coordinator. Previously, Victoria worked on species conservation issues at State and Federal environmental regulatory permitting agencies in Florida.