Federal District Court Dismisses Lawsuit Alleging San Francisco Harmed Endangered Species at Sharp Park

In an order issued on December 6, 2012, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a lawsuit brought by Wild Equity and other plaintiffs alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act’s take prohibition by the City and County of San Francisco.  The decision, in Wild Equity Institute v. City and County of San Francisco, N.D. Cal. Case No. C 11-958, closes a chapter in the longstanding effort of local environmental groups to shut down the historic Sharp Park golf course, which is located along the Pacific Ocean in the City of Pacifica and owned and operated by the City and County of San Francisco.  Furthermore, it clarifies that an applicant may rely on take authorization provided by a biological opinion before an action agency has issued a permit to the applicant provided the applicant complies to the terms in the biological opinion and associated incidental take statement (ITS) and those terms do not make take authorization contingent upon permit issuance.  Nossaman served as outside counsel to San Francisco in the matter.

In filing the lawsuit, plaintiffs alleged that, by operating the Sharp Park golf course, San Francisco illegally and routinely harmed endangered San Francisco garter snakes and threatened California red-legged frogs.  Among other things, plaintiffs claimed that operation of pumps to manage water bodies at Sharp Park, golf cart use, and routine maintenance operations, such as mowing, resulted in take of the listed species.  After filing the complaint in early 2011, plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction later that year that would have effectively shut down the course.  The court denied plaintiffs’ motion and subsequently stayed the lawsuit after San Francisco informed the court that the Army Corps of Engineers was engaged in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service with respect to an application from San Francisco for a Clean Water Act section 404 permit.

After the Service issued a biological opinion in October 2012, San Francisco and golfers that had intervened in the action filed a motion to dismiss the case as moot.  Plaintiffs argued that the biological opinion and ITS did not moot the matter because the Corps had not issued the section 404 permit.  They also claimed that the ITS, itself, included language indicating it does not take effect until the Corps acts by issuing a permit.  The court rejected both arguments holding that the statute and caselaw establish that an ITS shields persons from liability provided that they comply with its terms and that the “language in the ITS clearly contemplates that the document is self-effectuating.”  The holding is consistent with the language and structure of the ESA, and its holding that an ITS can be self-effectuating is particularly helpful to applicants faced with a lag between issuance of an ITS by the consulting agency and a permit or other authorization by the action agency.

Arizona District Court Dismisses Section 7(a)(1) Challenge to Forest Service

The United States District Court for the District of Arizona entered summary judgment (pdf) for the United States Forest Service in a case filed by Defenders of Wildlife and other plaintiffs alleging the Forest Service failed to fulfill its duty to conserve under section 7(a)(1) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The case focused on efforts to conserve the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) by reintroducing an experimental population of the species into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which includes portions of east-central Arizona and west-central New Mexico.  Plaintiffs complained that too often wolves reintroduced into the Recovery Area were removed by the Forest Service for preying on livestock, arguing that the Forest Service's livestock permitting program is interfering with Mexican wolf recovery efforts.

Plaintiffs pursued two specific claims against the Forest Service under section 7(a)(1).  First, they argued that the Forest Service violated section 7(a)(1) by failing to develop and implement its own Mexican wolf conservation program.  In response, the Forest Service argued that it fulfilled its obligation under section 7(a)(1) by carrying out a conservation program, namely the Mexican wolf recovery plan (pdf), developed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.  The court interpreted section 7(a)(1) to impose a requirement on the Forest Service to "carry out a substantive conservation program for the Mexican gray wolf."  But the court went on to hold that Plaintiffs' position that the Forest Service must develop its own program and may not implement a program developed by the Fish and Wildlife Service "puts form over substance" and is not supported by the statute or relevant caselaw.

Second, Plaintiffs argued that the Forest Service has not contributed to the conservation of the Mexican wolf and, instead, demonstrated a preference for wolf removal to protect domestic livestock.  The court opined that, to the extent that the Forest Service took no action to conserve the species, such inaction would plainly violate the section 7(a)(1) duty to conserve.  But, in this case, the court held that the record demonstrates affirmative action to carry out the Fish and Wildlife Service wolf conservation program.

The court's holdings are consistent with the balance of the jurisprudence interpreting section 7(a)(1) of the ESA, which support the proposition that federal agencies "have substantial discretion in determining how best to fulfill their section 7(a)(1) obligations."  As a result, the decision reiterates the difficulty would-be plaintiffs will face if they pursue a claim under section 7(a)(1) of the ESA.

Ninth Circuit Determines that Critical Habitat Can be Destroyed Without Meeting Definition of "Adverse Modification"

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the Fish and Wildlife Service's ("Service') no "adverse modification" determination despite the fact that the proposed project would destroy some critical habitat.

In Butte Environmental Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (PDF), environmental plaintiffs challenged the Service's biological opinion finding that a proposed business park to be located along Stillwater Creek in Redding, California would not adversely modify the critical habitat of the threatened vernal pool fairy shrimp, endangered vernal pool tadpole shrimp, and the threatened slender Orcutt grass.  The Service had determined that the proposed project contained 356.6 acres of critical habitat shared by the vernal pool fairy shrimp and vernal pool tadpole shrimp.  The Service concluded that the project would destroy 234.5 acres of this critical habitat, which was equal to 0.04% of the fairy shrimp's total critical habitat nationwide and 0.10% of the tadpole shrimp's total critical habitat nationwide. 

The court rejected each of the plaintiff's arguments challenging the Service's determination that the project would not adversely modify the critical habitat of the listed species.  First, plaintiff argued that the Service applied an improper definition of "adverse modification" and did not account for the "recovery needs" of the affected species, as required by the court's previous decision in Gifford Pinchot Task Force v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services.  In Gifford Pinchot, the court held that the regulatory definition of "adverse modification" contradicted Congress's command and that the definition of adverse modification of critical habitat was properly a direct or indirect alteration that appreciably diminishes the value of critical habitat for the survival or recovery of a listed species.  The court rejected plaintiff's contention, citing the Service's statement in the biological opinion that it did not rely on the regulatory definition of "destruction of adverse modification" but relied upon the statute and the court's decision in Gifford Pinchot.  

Second, despite the fact that the proposed project would destroy 234.5 acres of critical habitat for the fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp, the court explained that an area of a species' critical habitat can be destroyed without appreciably diminishing the value of the species' overall critical habitat.  The court noted that the project would only affect a very small percentage of the total critical habitat for the listed species. While the plaintiff argued that the Service's focus on the project's impact on the species' total critical habitat masked the project's localized impact, the court stated that where "there is no evidence in the record that 'some localized risk was improperly hidden by use of large scale analysis, we will not second-guess the [Service].'"  

Finally, the court rejected plaintiff's argument that the Service failed to address the rate of loss of critical habitat, stating that the Endangered Species Act did not require the Service to calculate rate of loss.