Facts of the Case
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) included a privately owned parcel of land (“Unit 1”) in Louisiana in an expanded designation of critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog. Though these endangered frogs had not inhabited Unit 1 for decades, the land contained historic breeding sites. Other necessary features would need to be restored however. The landowners, Weyerhaeuser Company and two other entities (collectively, the “Landowners”), intended to use the land for residential and commercial development, as well as timber operations. They brought suit against the FWS in federal district court, challenging Unit 1’s designation as critical habitat and seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. All parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, and the district court ruled in favor of the agency on the merits.
A divided 5th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, upholding Unit 1’s designation as critical habitat. The court rejected the Landowners’ argument that the FWS had acted arbitrarily and capriciously in making this designation on the theory that Unit 1 was not presently habitable nor essential to species conservation. Explaining that land need not be habitable to be considered “essential” under 16 U.S.C. § 1532(5)(A)(ii) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the court deferred to the agency’s interpretation of that term. The majority also held that the FWS had not acted unreasonably in interpreting the ESA to not contain a requirement that land be “currently” habitable by a species to be designated as critical habitat.
The 5th Circuit also held that the FWS had not made an arbitrary and capricious decision under 16 U.S.C. § 1533(b)(2) in not excluding Unit 1 from the critical habitat based on economic impacts, and that this determination was not reviewable in federal court.
Does the Endangered Species Act prohibit designation of privately owned land as unoccupied critical habitat that is neither habitat nor essential to species conservation?
Is an agency determination not to exclude an area from critical habitat due to the economic impact of designation subject to judicial review?
In a unanimous (8–0) opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court held as to the first question presented that to be designated a "critical habitat" under the Endangered Species Act, the land must also be habitat for the species. The Court found unpersuasive FWS's argument that habitat can include areas that, like Unit 1, would require modification to support a given species but which do not currently serve as habitat for the species. The statute provides that when the Secretary lists a species as endangered he must also "designate any habitat of such species which is then considered to be critical habitat." That language on its face requires that only "habitat" of an endangered species is eligible for designation as "critical habitat." Thus, even if if an area otherwise meets the statutory definition of "unoccupied critical habitat," Section 4(a)(3)(A)(i) does not authorize the agency to designate the area as critical habitat unless it is also habitat for the species.
As to the second question, the Court held that the agency's determination is subject to judicial review. The Administrative Procedure Act creates a presumption that agency determinations are subject to judicial review that may be rebutted only if the relevant statute precludes review or the action is specifically granted by law to the agency's discretion. Here, the Court found neither. Although the second sentence of Section 4(b)(2) states the Secretary "may" exclude an area from critical habitat, that section requires the Secretary to consider economic impact and relative benefits before deciding whether to exclude an area from critical habitat or to proceed with designation. Because the statute articulates a meaningful standard against which to judge the Secretary's exercise of discretion, the agency's determination is not beyond judicial review.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Federalist Society Review, Volume 19
The Federalist Society Review is the legal journal produced by the Federalist Society’s Practice Groups....
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Federalist Society Review, Volume 19
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