U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ordered to Take Fresh Look at Petition to Delist Bone Cave Harvestman

On March 28, 2019, a federal judge overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (“USFWS”) rejection of a petition to delist an endangered karst invertebrate species, the Bone Cave harvestman (Texella reyeisi) (“BCH”), which is known to occur only in central Texas.

American Stewards of Liberty and others (“Plaintiffs”) had claimed that USFWS’ rejection of a 2014 petition to delist the BCH was arbitrary and capricious because, among other things, USFWS based its rejection on the petition’s supposed failure to provide BCH population trend data that was unavailable and is, potentially, unattainable. As noted in the petition, the best available population data for BCH is the evidence of its presence in separate caves or cave clusters. Since the BCH’s listing in 1988, the number of caves in which the species is known to occur has grown from half a dozen caves to more than 200—an increase of more than 3,000 percent.

The court held that USFWS’ requirement for population trend data violated the Administrative Procedure Act and remanded the decision back to USFWS, for a new 90-day finding. In its ruling, the court noted that Plaintiffs’ most compelling argument was that USFWS had “required a higher quantum of evidence than is permissible under the Endangered Species Act and implementing regulations governing” 90-day findings.  Specifically, the court held that regulations governing USFWS’ review of petitions to list and delist species require a petition present information which is, in fact, available, and that USFWS committed “a clear error in judgment” when the agency called for more evidence than is required under the law. Pursuant to the ruling, USFWS must undertake a fresh review of the 2014 petition and must use available species population information, as opposed to population information USFWS “admits is impossible to attain.”  Nossaman attorneys Paul Weiland, Alan Glen, Rebecca Barho, and Brooke Wahlberg represented Plaintiffs.

The court simultaneously rejected the contention of plaintiff-intervenors, who argued that USFWS’ regulation of the BCH violated the Necessary and Proper Clause and Commerce Clause, and the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Other parties participated in various capacities in the litigation, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Travis Audubon,  Defenders of Wildlife, Mountain States Legal Foundation, the State of Texas, and Williamson County, Texas.

Supreme Court Hears Auer Deference Case

On March 27, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument in Kisor  v. Wilkie (No. 18-15), focusing on whether Auer deference should be overruled.  While the dispute is not environmental in nature, this case has nonetheless attracted significant attention from the environmental community due to the potentially significant implications to environmental litigation.  Auer deference (or Seminole Rock deference) requires courts to defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of its own ambiguous regulations.  Enforcement actions, permitting processes, and other agency actions are all impacted by the deference agencies receive as a result of the Auer deference doctrine.

The composition of the Supreme Court has also increased attention on Kisor, particularly with the appointments of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.  Justices Alito and Thomas also criticized Auer deference in a 2015 Supreme Court holding.  Despite this, oral argument today indicated some hesitancy by the Supreme Court to overturn Auer deference.  Questions posed by the Court ranged from how to reconcile the expertise of the agencies versus the courts’ lack thereof, to how tumultuous overturning Auer deference could be to the lower courts.  The Supreme Court also focused on the proposed modified deferential standard suggested by the government, which sought to clarify the applicability of Auer deference through the application of six factors.  This suggested six factor approach was met with skepticism over whether it would truly result in clarification.

In short, today’s oral argument indicates that the Supreme Court may not be as quick to overturn deference as anticipated.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Issues Proposed Rule to Delist the Gray Wolf

On March 15, 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“Service”) issued a proposed rule to remove the gray wolf (Canis lupus) from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.  As we reported here, the Service announced its intention to issue the proposed rule earlier this month.  According to the Service, the species’ population has rebounded considerably since it was originally listed in 1978, when the population estimate was approximately 1,000 individuals.  Now, the Service estimates there is a Great Lakes meta-population with approximately 4,400 individuals, along with an eastern Canadian meta-population of 12,000-14,000 individuals (with connectivity to the Great Lakes population) and a Rocky Mountain/western Canadian meta-population with approximately 16,000 individuals that continues to expand into Oregon, Washington, and California.  The Service believes these meta-populations are sufficiently stable to warrant delisting.

The Service has previously struggled with proposals to delist or reclassify the gray wolf. To that end, the proposed rule includes a chart identifying the numerous past legal and regulatory actions that have involved the gray wolf since the late 1970s.

Delisting the gray wolf will return wolf management to the states. The Service recognizes that the public response to this may be mixed, stating that it “expect[s] that some segments of the public will be more tolerant of wolf management at the State level because it may be perceived by some as more flexible then Federal regulation, whereas other segments may continue to prefer Federal management due to a perception that it is more protective.”  According to the Service’s statement in the Federal Register, comments on the proposed rule will be accepted until May 14, 2019.

Trump Administration Announces Plan to End Gray Wolf Protections

Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, David Bernhardt, recently announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) will publish a proposed rule removing federal protections under the Endangered Species Act for the endangered gray wolf (Canis lupus).  Secretary Bernhardt announced the plan at the 84th North American Wildlife & Natural Resources Conference in Denver, Colorado.

The gray wolf was originally listed as endangered in March 1978 throughout the contiguous United States, except in Minnesota, where the Service classified the species as threatened.  The current move to delist follows a 2011 attempt by the Obama administration to delist the species in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which was reversed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.  In 2017, the D.C. Circuit reinstated the Service’s delisting of the gray wolf in Wyoming.

The proposed rule to delist the gray wolf would leave management of the gray wolves to state regulators.  The Service has stated that the proposed rule will be published and available for public comment in the near future.  Please check back with us for further information.

Chub Back from the Brink – An ESA Success Story

Borax Lake chub

On February 26, 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a proposed rule to delist the Borax Lake chub (Gila boraxobius), a small fish that currently resides primarily in a single Oregon lake.  Currently listed as an endangered species, the proposed rule states that the best available scientific and commercial information “indicates that the threats to the Borax Lake chub have been eliminated or reduced to the point where the species no longer meets the definition of an endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act . . . .”  The Federal Register notice states that the Service will accept comments on the proposed rule that are received or postmarked on or before April 29, 2019.

Borax Lake, the chub’s primary habitat, is a geothermally heated, alkaline spring-fed lake.  The chub was the subject of an emergency listing in 1980.  The emergency listing was prompted by proposed geothermal development in and around Borax Lake, and human modification of the lake, all of which threatened the chub’s survival.  After the emergency listing ended, the Service formally listed the Borax Lake chub as an endangered species in 1980.

While delisting proposals are often contentious, the Borax Lake chub’s proposed delisting has been met with approval by some environmental groups who are touting the proposed delisting as another ESA success story.  (See Center for Biological Diversity, Tiny Oregon Fish Recovered by Endangered Species Act, dated Feb. 25, 2019.)


Judge Upholds Service’s Denial of Petition to Delist Golden-Cheeked Warbler

On February 6, 2019, a federal judge upheld U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) 90-day finding that a petition to delist the endangered golden-cheeked warbler (Petition) did not present substantial information that delisting the warbler may be warranted (Negative 90-day Finding). In 2015,  various groups and individuals filed the Petition, which, among other things, alleged that because a 2015 study indicated that the golden-cheeked warbler and its habitat were far more abundant than the Service originally believed at the time of the bird’s listing in 1990, the bird should be delisted. In 2016, the Service issued its Negative 90-day Finding, which acknowledged the increase in the warbler’s numbers and range, but found that threats of habitat loss and fragmentation remained, and that the bird was still at risk of decline due to disease and predation. The General Land Office of Texas then sued the Service alleging three flaws in the Service’s Negative 90-day Finding: (1) the Service violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when it listed the golden-cheeked warbler without designating critical habitat; (2) the Service improperly denied the Petition and improperly refused to designate critical habitat; and (3) the Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement when it initially listed the warbler, when it published the 5-year review of the status of the warbler, and when the Service issued the Negative 90-day Finding.  The court dismissed the first and third claims, leaving only the claim concerning improper denial of the Petition.

Despite information indicating increased abundance of the warbler, the court found that the State did not meet the burden required under the Administrative Procedure Act to overturn the Service’s Negative 90-day Finding. Rather, the court found that the Petition failed to address other threats faced by the golden-cheeked warbler, and the Service was reasonable in relying on these other threats in denying the Petition.

A separate case challenging the Service’s denial of a delisting petition (concerning a small karst invertebrate species) remains under consideration by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. That case, before Judge Lee Yeakel, alleges the Service violated the Administrative Procedure Act in denying a petition to delist the Bone Cave harvestman. Arguments in that case were held in March 2018.

Independent Scientific Review Under the Endangered Species Act

In an article published online this week in BioScience, the American Institute of Biological Sciences’ scholarly journal, Drs. Dennis Murphy and Paul Weiland contribute to the literature on independent scientific review, focusing on the review of federal agency determinations under the Endangered Species Act. They describe the types of decisions that can benefit from independent scientific review. They also describe past shortcomings in undertaking such reviews, relying on specific examples from past reviews. Identification of such shortcomings feeds into the principal contribution of the article to the literature: identification of nine attributes of successful review. These attributes, described in greater detail in the article linked here, include:

  1. The call for independent science review panels to function as deliberative bodies, with three or more participating reviewers,
  2. Panel representation should offer a balance in skills and expertise, with panelist selection limited by conflict of interest rules,
  3. Use of a third-party science neutral to administer the review,
  4. The development of a robust and clearly delineated task for the panel,
  5. Provision to the panel of sufficient background and other materials to provide context, including materials identified by relevant stakeholders,
  6. Provision of materials that allow the panel to discern the process that the agency followed to make its determination,
  7. Setting review time and resources sufficient to complete the task,
  8. Setting a schedule that is appropriate to the tasking and is neither too late to foreclose incorporation of review input into agency determinations nor too early to allow for meaningful review, and
  9. Requiring the responsible agency to respond to the review in writing.

The authors explain that these nine attributes of successful independent science review should be viewed as a unit. They go on to state that their adoption will contribute to agency efforts to use the best available scientific information, thereby increasing both the legitimacy of agency determinations and the likelihood such determinations will meet pertinent legal requirements.

Frogs or Freedom?

Nossaman Environment & Land Use Partner Brooke Wahlberg recently participated in a panel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s 2019 Policy Orientation entitled “Frogs or Freedom: Are New Limitations Coming for the Endangered Species Act?”  Ms. Wahlberg’s segment addressed the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Weyerhaeuser v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and how the case affects impacts on critical habitat.  See below for a brief clip from her presentation.  The full video of the entire panel presentation can be found on The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s website.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Policy Orientation is the premier gathering for all Americans interested in the future of the Lone Star State—and the country.  At Policy Orientation, scholars, experts, and distinguished guests explore in depth the forces shaping our world—how they affect us, and how we may influence them.

USFWS Announces Plans to Revise Hundreds of ESA Recovery Plans

On January 31, 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced plans to amend up to 182 Endangered Species Act (ESA) recovery plans, which potentially cover over 305 animal and plant species, over the next year. These amendments will revise each recovery plan to include “quantitative recovery criteria” as part of the Department of the Interior’s Agency Priority Performance Goals. USFWS kicked off this 12-month push by releasing a notice of availability of 26 draft recovery plan amendments, covering 42 species found in eight states (AZ, CA, CO, HI, NM, TX, UT, and WA).

ESA recovery plans are intended to provide a roadmap for listed species’ recovery and to supply guidance to USFWS—as well as states, conservation partners, and affected landowners and industries—on how to minimize threats to the species and move towards recovery. The addition of “quantitative criteria for what constitutes a recovered species” is intended to give USFWS “objective, measurable guidelines” to help determine when a listed species has recovered such that it can be downlisted or delisted altogether.

In its notice of availability, USFWS requests comments on its first tranche of ESA recovery plan amendments by April 1, 2019. A dozen animal species and 30 plant species are covered by those recovery plans, including two Hawaiian seabirds, six Texas karst invertebrates, a Washington pygmy rabbit, and a number of cacti. The USFWS notice of availability requests comments on these draft recovery plan amendments from local, state, tribal, and federal agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations and the public.