Regulatory agencies spring into action after Supreme Court decides dusky gopher frog case

Emily Newman, MJLST Staffer

While “critical habitat” is defined within the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a definition for “habitat” has never been adopted within the statute itself or any regulations issued by the two agencies responsible for implementing the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (collectively, the “Services”). In 2018, however, the U.S. Supreme Court called this gap into question. Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Serv., 139 S. Ct. 361 (2018). In Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Court reviewed a case by which the USFWS designated a particular area of land as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog, including private property and land that was currently unoccupied by the frog. Id. at 366. Weyerhaeuser Company, a timber company, and a group of family landowners challenged the designation because the land was not currently occupied by this species and would need to be improved before occupation could actually occur. Id. at 367. The Court vacated and remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit, determining that the land first must be designated as “habitat” before being designated as “critical habitat.” Id. at 369. More specifically, they remanded to the Fifth Circuit for it to interpret the meaning of “habitat” under the ESA; however, they did not specifically direct the Services to adopt a definition. Id. The Fifth Circuit ended up dismissing the case upon remand.

The Services’ proposed new rule aims to address this gap. The proposed rule was published on August 5, 2020, and within it, the Services propose two alternative definitions for the meaning of “habitat” which would be added to § 424.02 of the ESA. The first definition is as follows: “The physical places that individuals of a species depend upon to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas with existing attributes that have the capacity to support individuals of the species.” The alternative definition of “habitat” is listed as: “The physical places that individuals of a species use to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas where individuals of the species do not presently exist but have the capacity to support such individuals, only where the necessary attributes to support the species presently exist.”

The first definition emphasizes “dependence” while the second emphasizes “use”, but both allow for unoccupied areas to be included in the definition. Additionally, both definitions imply that the land has to be suitable for a particular species in its current condition with no improvements made. The Services clarified that the proposed rule would only be prospective and would not revise any designations of critical habitat already made.

The Services issued the proposed rule largely in order to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Weyerhaeuser, but the Services do mention additional purposes such as the desire to “provide transparency, clarity, and consistency for stakeholders.” The proposed rule is also meant to build upon regulatory reforms issued by the Services in 2019. Additionally, the Services place the proposed rule in a larger context as part of the efforts of the Trump administration to “bring the ESA into the 21st century.”

The proposed rule has received both support and criticism. Those in support of the rule mainly highlight how defining “habitat” would lead to more certainty as to when a particular area would or could be protected under the ESA. They say that this could positively impact species by “aiding the public’s understanding of those areas that constitute habitat” and also by helping companies plan out projects in such a way as to minimize any impact on habitat.

Those against the two definitions contained in the proposed rule have multiple reasons for their criticism. For one, they believe that the primary definition in particular runs the risk of conflating “habitat” and “critical habitat” even though “habitat” presumably should cover a wider area. Second, they argue that defining “habitat” through a regulation is unnecessary and has not been necessary in the 45 plus years that the ESA has been around. This is because defining “habitat” could undermine any critical habitat designations under the ESA, and it would also negatively impact or cause confusion in other parts of the ESA where the word “habitat” is used and other federal statutes that are often “implicated by actions related to listed species.” Third, while the proposed rule is prospective and would not require reevaluations of past critical habitat designations, that does not mean the Services by their own accord won’t reevaluate those designations using the new definition of “habitat.”

The last, and arguably most important, critique of the proposed rule is that either definition has the potential to exclude essential areas of habitat such as fragmented, degraded, or destroyed habitat that would need to be restored, and also habitat that is needed for species whose range will likely fluctuate due to the impacts of climate change. Critics, such as the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the American Fisheries Society (AFS), argue that this would only maintain the status quo and simply “wouldn’t make sense from a management perspective for species recovery or the legislative perspective intended by Congress in enacting the ESA.” The AFS makes a useful analogy to what would happen if a similar definition applied to polluted waters under the Clean Water Act: “Indeed, if a similar definition was used for polluted waters in the U.S. under the Clean Water Act, we would never have improved water quality by installing treatment systems to remove pollutants, as the definition leaves the only condition as status quo.”

Several opponents of the proposed rule provide their own alternative definitions of habitat or what that definition should include. The Defenders of Wildlife suggest a definition that is consistent with definitions of habitat in academia and with the intent of the ESA, as well as being complementary to but distinct from the definition of “critical habitat” in the ESA: “ ‘Habitat’ is the area or type of site where a species naturally occurs or depends on directly or indirectly to carry out its life processes, or where a species formerly occurred or has the potential to occur and carry out its life processes in the foreseeable future.” Additionally, the AFS advises that any definition of habitat account for areas that may not even “house” the species in question but that are nevertheless important for energy and resource flow; this broader suggestion reflects the move towards “holistic watershed approaches” in fisheries management.

The public comment period for the proposed rule closed on September 4, 2020, but the Services has not yet issued a final rule. Looking ahead, though, the strong opinions both for and against the proposed rule indicate that the Services will most likely face litigation irrespective of what they decide upon in the final rule. Moreover, a change in the Administration following the 2020 election will likely affect the outcome of this regulatory action.