Thursday, November 29, 2018

Endangered frog still in hot water -- Nov. 29, 2018 column


The dusky gopher frog hopped into these pages in early October after its appearance, figuratively, before the Supreme Court.

The first oral argument of the term involved the endangered frog’s critical habitat, specifically the federal government’s responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to protect critical habitat versus landowners’ rights.

On Tuesday, the court issued a unanimous opinion in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- but did not settle the matter.

The justices sent the dispute, with instructions on two questions, back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which had sided with the wildlife service in 2016.

So the frog is still in hot water.

To recap, the dusky gopher frog (Rana sevosa) historically lived in Louisiana but hasn’t been seen there since about 1965. The frog is named for the gopher tortoise holes where the mature frog lives.

Now found in only three places in Mississippi, the frog was declared endangered in 2001, and the wildlife service designated 1,544 acres in St. Tammany Parish as critical habitat in 2012.

The landowners want to develop the property, and the government and environmentalists want to preserve the land in case it’s needed to save the species.

The case became a cause celebre for property rights advocates who accuse the government of a land grab. The landowners claimed a Supreme Court win.

“In a word: elated. It’s a great victory for our side,” Edward Poitevent whose family has owned the land for generations, told the Associated Press. Weyerhaeuser Co. also owns a part and grows commercial timber there.

Environmentalists were disappointed, but “the ruling doesn’t weaken the mandate to protect habitat for endangered wildlife,” said Collette Adkins of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The case is important because it may signal courts are willing to slow Trump Administration efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Separate efforts by House Republicans to rewrite the species law seem doomed now that Democrats have regained control of the House, but that doesn’t stop the administration’s action.

In oral arguments, three of the four conservative justices seemed sympathetic to the landowners, and Justice Clarence Thomas asked no questions. The four liberal justices seemed sympathetic to saving the frog’s habitat.

Perhaps they agreed to disagree. The vote was 8 to 0 to send back the case. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was not yet on the court when the justices heard the arguments, did not participate in the case.

In the opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., seemed to appreciate the quirky critter.

“Warts dot its back, and dark spots cover its entire body. It is noted for covering its eyes with its front legs when it feels threatened, peeking out periodically until danger passes. Less endearingly, it also secretes a bitter, milky substance to deter would-be diners,” Roberts wrote.

The chief also provided a grammar lesson: “Our analysis starts with the phrase ‘critical habitat.’ According to the ordinary understanding of how adjectives work, ‘critical habitat’ must also be ‘habitat.’ Adjectives modify nouns – they pick out a subset of a category that possesses a certain quality.”

Yes, but. The law also says unoccupied land can be habitat, as Roberts noted in this parenthetical sentence: “(Habitat can, of course, include areas where the species does not currently live, given that the statute defines critical habitat to include unoccupied areas.)”

The Supreme Court batted back to the lower court the warty issues of what constitutes habitat and the economic ramifications of designating the property as critical habitat. 

An economic impact report found the designation potentially could cost the landowners $33.9 million in lost development, but the government concluded the cost was not disproportionate considering the conservation benefits.

“The dusky gopher frog’s habitat protections remain in place for now, and we’re hopeful the 5th Circuit will recognize the importance of protecting and restoring habitats for endangered wildlife to live,” said Adkins at the Center for Biological Diversity said.

At this point, the frog is in the 5th Circuit, but the prolonged legal battle means it could yet hop back to the Supreme Court.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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