• Posts by Robert D. Thornton
    Partner

    Robert Thornton specializes in advising state and regional infrastructure authorities on environmental issues regarding large infrastructure projects.  He has successfully defended more than $12 billion in regional ...

Ninth Circuit Rejects Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Delisting

For the second time in a decade, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has invalidated a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to remove the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) population from the federal endangered species list.  Crow Indian Tribe v. State of Wyoming, Case No. 18-36038 (9th Cir. July 8, 2020).  In 2011, the Ninth Circuit invalidated the decision to delist the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population because the evidence did not support the Service’s conclusion that the decline of white bark pine did not threaten the ...

Twitter Facebook LinkedIn
WEBINAR: Key CEQA Compliance Considerations for Vehicle Miles Traveled Analyses

Please join us on August 4th from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. PT for “Key CEQA Compliance Considerations for Vehicle Miles Traveled Analyses.” This complimentary webinar will examine the California Natural Resources Agency’s new guidelines for traffic and transportation impacts analyses under CEQA through legal, planning and technical perspectives. We will be joined by well-known transit practitioners Keith Greer, Senior Environmental Planner at the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), and Ronald Milam, Principal at the transportation planning firm Fehr & ...

Will Long-Awaited Changes to NEPA Materially Alter Federal Environmental Reviews?

On January 10, 2020, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) proposed amendments to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) implementing regulations.  The Proposed Rule would represent the first significant overhaul of CEQ’s NEPA regulations in more than 40 years.

The changes in the Proposed Rule are substantial and numerous. 

While the stated purpose of the changes is to facilitate more effective and timely environmental review of federal agency actions, the practical impact of the proposed changes is far from clear.  Below, we focus on some of the more significant ...

Posted in Conservation

On September 2, 2015, the California Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case involving fully protected species that may have important state-wide implications. (Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish and Wildlife (Newhall Land and Farming Company), No. S217763.)  The case involves challenges to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (Department) environmental impact report (EIR) and approval of the Newhall Ranch project in Los Angeles County.  The Supreme Court is reviewing three issues: (1) whether the California Environmental Quality Act ...

In a decision that casts a shadow on the enforceability of contractual assurances in habitat conservation plan (HCP) agreements, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected various Endangered Species Act (ESA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) challenges to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) designation of critical habitat for a native fish species (the Santa Ana Sucker) on the Santa Ana River in Southern California. Bear Valley Municipal Water Company v. Jewell, No. 12-57297 (9th Cir. June 25, 2015).

This is the first case to address the ...

Continuing the quarter century controversy over the listing of the Coastal California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica californica) as a threatened subspecies, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has concluded that a petition to delist the gnatcatcher may be warranted. (Federal Register PDF).   The petition asserts that the listing of the Coastal California gnatcatcher as a distinct subspecies is not based on the best scientific data available as is required by the Endangered Species Act.  Nossaman prepared the petition on behalf of the National Association of Home ...

Posted in Court Decisions

On July 23, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was not required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding potential endangered species impacts of air quality regulations designed to reduce visual impacts of the Four Corners Power Plant on the Grand Canyon and other national parks.  WildEarth Guardians v. EPA, 2014 U.S.App.LEXIS 13968.  The court concluded that the EPA decision not to regulate air pollutants with potential to impact endangered fish was not an action subject to the ...

Posted in Delisting

Citing new genetic evidence that the coastal California gnatcatcher is not a distinct subspecies as previously claimed, but is part of a single, healthy and abundant species that ranges from Southern California to the southern tip of Baja, Mexico, the National Association of Home Builders and several other parties filed a petition to remove the coastal California gnatcatcher from the list of threatened species.  The petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is based on a peer-reviewed study of gnatcatcher DNA by Dr. Robert Zink of the University of Minnesota and ...

On May 12, 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed two important new rules (50 CFR Part 402 and 50 CFR Part 424) implementing the critical habitat provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The proposed rules expand the regulatory definition of critical habitat and adverse modification – key ESA terms governing federal agency actions on tens of millions of acres of public and private land throughout the nation.  The federal wildlife agencies also proposed a new policy governing the exclusion of areas from critical habitat ...

On an issue of first impression, a California court has created a judicial exception to the take prohibition in the state’s fully protected species statutes.  On March 20, 2014, the California Court of Appeal held that the live trapping and translocation of a fully protected species does not constitute prohibited take of the species.  Center for Biological Diversity v. California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, 2014 Cal.App. LEXIS 256 (March 20, 2014) (pdf).  The decision addresses a common conundrum in California:  whether actions to protect a species authorized by the state and federal ...

Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

In a major victory for advocates of regulatory action to address climate change, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected challenges to the listing of the polar bear as a threatened species.  In Re:  Polar Bear Endangered Species Listing and Section 4(d) Rule Litigation (D.C. Cir. No. 11-5219, March 1, 2013).  The court held that the decision to list the polar bear based on predicted reductions in the sea ice habitat of the polar bear as a result of climate change is reasonable and adequately supported by the record.
The polar bear listing is the first and most high ...

Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

In two recent actions, President Obama and the Fish and Wildlife Service have signaled what may be an important shift in the Obama Administration’s position on the designation of critical habitat for endangered and threatened species. On February 28, 2012, the President issued a memorandum (pdf) directing the Interior Department to propose modifying the Department’s approach to the evaluation of the economic impacts of critical habitat. The President directed the Interior Department to propose revisions to its regulations to allow the simultaneous consideration of ...

The California Legislature has sent to the Governor legislation authorizing the Department of Fish and Game to permit the incidental take of 36 fully protected species pursuant to a natural community conservation plan approved by the Department. (Senate Bill 618 (Wolk).) The legislation, in effect, gives fully protected species the same level of protection as is provided under the Natural Community Conservation Planning Act (NCCP Act) for endangered and threatened species. (Cal. Fish & Game Code § 2835.)  The legislation removes a significant regulatory barrier to the ...

Posted in Delisting

In a decision that underscores the regulatory importance of recovery plans, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia invalidated the delisting of the Virginia northern flying squirrel on the grounds that the delisting rule modified delisting criteria in the recovery plan for the squirrel. Friends of Blackwater v. Salazar No. 09-2122 (D.D.C. March 25, 2011). The Court concluded that the Service violated section 4(f) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (requiring notice and comment on recovery plans) by relying on criteria to support delisting that varied ...

Twitter Facebook LinkedIn
Tags: Delisting
Posted in Court Decisions

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the regulation of water deliveries from the State Water Project and Central Valley Project to protect the threatened delta smelt did not violate the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.  San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority v. Salazar, No. 10-19152 (9th Cir. March 25, 2011). 

The decision is the latest in a series of decisions by the federal appellate courts rejecting Commerce Clause challenges to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The court concluded that the protection of endangered and threatened species (including ...

Posted in Court Decisions

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia upheld a decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to exclude an area from the designation of critical habitat for the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow in Florida.  Center For Biological Diversity v. Salazar (D.D.C. Mar. 16, 2011) (PDF).  While conceding that the excluded area was essential to the sparrow’s conservation, the Service decided not to designate the area as critical habitat, in part, because of the conflict between critical habitat and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project. 

The court ...

Posted in Court Decisions

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied (pdf) two petitions that sought to have the Court resolve a Circuit split regarding the evaluation of economic impacts of critical habitat designations under the federal Endangered Species Act.  The Court’s action leaves in place two recent decisions by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upholding the use of the so-called baseline methodology by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ("Service").  Under the baseline methodology, the Service restricts the evaluation of economic impacts of a potential critical habitat ...

The Ninth Circuit issued a decision (PDF) recently in which it held that the removal of an endangered plant from privately-owned waters of the United States is not a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Section 9(a)(2)(B) of the ESA makes it unlawful to remove and reduce to possession any [endangered species of plant] from areas under federal jurisdiction. The court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the term areas under federal jurisdiction includes areas that qualify as wetlands and other waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act. The decision is important ...

Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

For the second time in two months, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected an industry challenge to a designation of critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  In Home Builders Association of Northern California v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service (PDF), the court upheld the designation of 858,000 acres of land in California as critical habitat for fifteen vernal pool species.

The ESA prohibits federal agencies from approving actions that adversely modify critical habitat.  The court rejected Home Builders’ claim that the ESA ...

The regulatory requirements of the Endangered Species Act ("ESA") are imposing limitations on the development of renewable energy projects in the California desert. State and federal regulatory agencies are attempting to expedite ESA and other environmental reviews of proposed renewable energy projects. But the jury is out on whether these efforts will succeed. The ability of California to implement its precedent-setting climate change legislation hangs in the balance. As Governor Schwarzenegger stated "If we cannot put solar power in the Mojave Desert, I don't know where the ...

Posted in Litigation

In the latest round of litigation over endangered species impacts of water management in Southern Florida, a district court invalidated an incidental take statement applicable to actions of the Corps of Engineers to restore the Everglades.  The decision in Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida v. United States (PDF), is the latest in a line of decisions concluding that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to provide a sufficient justification for the use habitat conditions in lieu of a numerical cap on incidental take.  The decision is an example of the willingness of the federal ...

For the third time in nine years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has revised the designation of critical habitat for the California red-legged frog. The new designation includes 1.6 million acres in 20 counties in California. 75 Fed. Reg. 12,816 (Mar. 17, 2010) (PDF). The revised designation increases the amount of critical habitat by over one million acres from the 2006 critical habitat designation (PDF). The revised designation represents a decrease of approximately 2.4 million acres from the 2001 designation (PDF). The Service revised the prior designations in response to ...

After seeking a week's delay, the Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that the greater sage grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, but listing is currently precluded by higher priority species.  The Service is placing the greater sage grouse on the candidate list for future action.  Until then, the species would not receive any protection under the ESA. 

In its finding (PDF), the Service stated there are several factors contributing to the destruction or modification of the greater sage grouse's habitat, including the increasing degradation and ...

Posted in Listing

Reminiscent of the tale of endless litigation in Dickens' Bleak House, the Fish and Wildlife Service has reinstated (PDF) the 1993 proposed rule (PDF) to list the flat-tailed horned lizard as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act following more than a decade of litigation, including two decisions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  The flat-tailed horned lizard is found in the western Sonoran desert of California, Arizona and Mexico.

The reinstatement of the proposed rule is in response to Tuscon Herpetological Society v. Salazar (PDF)

Posted in Listing, Litigation

Environmental groups have sued (PDF) the Fish and Wildlife Service to force the listing of the Sonoran desert tortoise in Arizona as a distinct population segment under the Endangered Species Act.  The lawsuit is the latest legal development that threatens to slow or block the national effort to promote the development of solar energy on federal lands in the Arizona desert.  The listing of a related population of desert tortoise across the border in California has triggered significant limitations on solar projects in the Mojave Desert. 

On August 28, 2009, the Fish and Wildlife Service ...

Nossaman’s Endangered Species Law & Policy blog focuses on news, events, and policies affecting endangered species issues in California and throughout the United States. Topics include listing and critical habitat decisions, conservation and recovery planning, inter-agency consultation, and related developments in law, policy, and science. We also inform readers about regulatory and legislative developments, as well as key court decisions.

Stay Connected

RSS RSS Feed

Categories

Archives

View All Nossaman Blogs
Jump to Page

We use cookies on this website to improve functionality, enhance performance, analyze website traffic and to enable social media features.  To learn more, please see our Privacy Policy and our Terms & Conditions for additional detail.