National Marine Fisheries Service

On February 13, 2017, by an eight to six vote, the Fifth Circuit denied en banc review of the panel opinion in Markle Interests, LLC v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  The case dealt with the predecessor to the new regulations effective March 2016, but it is highly significant in determining the extent of Fish & Wildlife’s authority to designate land as critical habitat.

The case concerns the dusky gopher frog, an endangered species that now resides exclusively in Mississippi.  At one time, the frog inhabited land in St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana but has not been seen there for more than 50 years.  Nonetheless, Fish & Wildlife designated some 1500 acres of land in Louisiana as unoccupied critical habitat.

The rationale was that the Louisiana property had one essential condition for conservation of the frog:  five ephemeral ponds.  An ephemeral pond is one that periodically dries up and hence cannot support fish.  The frog uses the pond to lay its eggs safe from predatory fish.

The problem is that the Louisiana property is not currently habitable by the frog.  Approximately 90% of the property is covered with closed-canopy loblolly pine trees, which would have to be removed and replaced with another variety to make the area habitable for the frog.  Fish & Wildlife has no authority to compel private landowners to undertake these changes and there is no evidence that they will.

The opportunity cost to the landowners may be more than $30 million.  We expect a cert. petition.

The State of Missouri recently joined 19 other states (7 of which are in Husch Blackwell’s geographic footprint) in challenging recently-enacted regulations extending the scope of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). State of Alabama ex rel. Strange v. Nat’l Marine Fisheries Service, No.16-cv-00593 (S.D. Ala.).  The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish & Wildlife Service (the Services) published the final regulations in February 2016 and they became effective in March 2016.

The ESA requires federal agencies to assure that their actions do not result in the “destruction or adverse modification” of habitat critical to the conservation of threatened or endangered species. Thus, a federal agency may not authorize or fund activities that adversely affect critical habitat.  The new regulations change the method for designating habitat as critical and the meaning of adverse modification.

The ESA distinguishes between “occupied” and “unoccupied” habitat. For the former, the Services must establish that the site has physical or biological features that are essential to the conservation of a species and may require special management considerations or protection.  For the latter, the Services must establish that habitat limited to its current range would be inadequate to ensure conservation of the species.  The statute explicitly states that critical habitat may not include the entire geographical area that can be occupied by the species.

According to the lawsuit, the new regulations exceed the Services’ powers under the ESA in four respects. First, they permit the Services to designate unoccupied land as critical habitat, even if unnecessary to recovery of the species.  Second, they permit the Services to designate areas as occupied critical habitat, even when neither occupied nor containing features necessary to conservation of the species.  Third, they allow the Services to designate uninhabited areas as critical habitat even if incapable of supporting the species.  Fourth, they allow the Services to declare broad, general swaths of land or water as critical habitat without requiring specificity. Continue Reading States Challenge New Endangered Species Act Regulations