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.

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.

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