The Supreme Court in a unanimous decision on Tuesday limited the reach of the Endangered Species Act, ruling that the government can designate a protected “habitat” only in areas where a threatened animal could currently live.
The justices set aside a ruling that restricted development in a wooded area in Louisiana where an endangered frog might be able to live in the future if some trees were removed.
At present, the roughly 100 remaining dusky gopher frogs live only in a single pond in a wooded area nearby in Mississippi.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the “critical habitat” of an endangered species “must also be a habitat.”
The ruling sends the case back to a lower court for a final decision. The case was heard on the first Monday in October and the four more liberal justices spoke in defense of the Fish and Wildlife Service. But in the end, they agreed with the chief justice that the law’s reference to protecting “critical habitat” was best understood as referring to places where an endangered animal could currently live.
The ruling is a setback for environmentalists who argued that the federal law authorizes the government to protect habitats that are “essential to the conservation of the species.”
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed with the Fish and Wildlife Service that the designated forest land in Louisiana was “essential to the conservation” of the tiny endangered frogs. They breed in small ponds that dry up for part of the year, and they need sunlight from open-canopy forests. The wooded tract in Louisiana was said to be well suited for the frogs and would require only minor changes to preserve the frogs. The agency designated a 1,544-acre tract as critical habitat for the frogs. This designation did not require immediate changes in the land, but it would have limited future development by Weyerhaeuser and other owners of the land.
They appealed in Weyerhaeuser vs. U.S. Fish and Wildlife and argued the phrase “critical habitat” could not be interpreted to include any area where an endangered species might live
The chief justice agreed the scope of the law was limited. “Only the ‘habitat’ of the endangered species is eligible for designation as critical habitat,” Roberts said. “Even if an area otherwise meets the statutory definition of unoccupied critical habitat because the secretary finds the area essential for the conservation of the species, [the law] does not authorize the secretary to designate the area as critical habitat unless it is also habitat for the species.”
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh took no part in the decision because the case was heard a week before he won confirmation in the Senate.