On March 10, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a biological opinion (BiOp) and incidental take statement (ITS) issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in connection with a $5.2 billion project to export liquefied natural gas from a terminal located on the south bank of the Brownsville Ship Channel in Cameron County, Texas (Project). Sierra Club v. Dep’t of the Interior, Case No. 20-60319 (5th Cir. 2021). In reaching its decision, the Fifth Circuit refused to second-guess the agencies consistent with the deferential standard of ...
Today, the United States District Court for the District of Montana issued an order amending its previous order, which had invalidated nationwide permit 12 (NWP 12) on the basis that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) failed to engage in a programmatic Endangered Species Act (ESA) section 7 consultation when the Corps reissued NWP 12 in 2017. The case arose out of the controversy over the Keystone XL Pipeline. The effect of the court’s prior ruling vacated NWP 12 in its entirety and enjoined its use to authorize impacts to waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act. NWP 12 ...
On February 19, 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued a Record of Decision (ROD) on the reinitiation of consultation on the coordinated long-term operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project. At the same time, the President signed a memorandum on developing and delivering more water supplies in California. The Department of the Interior issued a press release describing these actions.
The execution of the ROD signals the shift from operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project under the biological opinions issued by the U.S. Fish and ...
The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently affirmed a lower court decision that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers need not consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act regarding the operation of dams and other facilities on the Rio Grande River, in WildEarth Guardians v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, No. 18-2153 (10th Cir. Jan. 17, 2020). The dispositive issue in the case was whether the Corps has discretion to act such that it is obliged to engage in consultation regarding the effects of its operation of the Middle Rio ...
On August 27, 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (Services) announced the finalization of regulations governing implementation of various aspects of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Among those regulations were rules setting forth how the Services and other federal agencies were to consult on potential impacts of federal activities on ESA-listed species and designated critical habitat. The new rules were to go into effect on September 26, 2019. Today, the Services announced that the effective date for the interagency consultation ...
On October 25, 2017, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) released a report entitled Review of the Department of the Interior Actions that Potentially Burden Domestic Energy identifying agency actions that potentially burden the development or use of domestic energy resources. This report, generated in response to Executive Order 13783, identifies several costly and burdensome regulations that DOI believes hamper the production or transmission of domestic energy. The report pays particular attention to the oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy sectors, and ...
On May 8, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted, in part, a motion for summary judgment brought by plaintiffs in a suit challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) approval of the registration and use of 73 pesticides containing the active ingredients clothianidin and thiamethoxam. See Ellis v. Housenger, Case No. 13-cv-01266-MMC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 70107 (N.D. Cal. May 8, 2017). Plaintiffs, a collection of individuals and a number of environmental and advocacy groups, alleged that EPA’s decision to allow ...
On December 3, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon’s denial of a preliminary injunction sought by environmental plaintiffs to enjoin the Douglas Fire Complex Recovery Project in Oregon’s Klamath Mountains. Cascadia Wildlands v. Thrailkill, No. 14-35819 (9th Cir. Dec. 3, 2015). The environmental groups asserted that the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) combined recovery project and logging plan to salvage acreage burned by the Douglas Complex Fire would irreparably harm the threatened ...
On June 17, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the U.S. Forest Service (Service) violated section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by failing to reinitiate consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regarding the impacts of a revised critical habitat designation on the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. U.S. Forest Service, No. 13-35624 (9th Cir. Jun. 17, 2015) (pdf). The Canada lynx was listed as threatened in 2000, and a limited amount of critical habitat was designated for the species in 2006 ...
On May 1, 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (collectively, the wildlife agencies) issued a final rule amending the regulations governing consultation under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in order to codify the practice of using surrogates to express the amount of extent of anticipated take in an incidental take statement issued concomitant with a biological opinion. The final rule also provides that consultations on programmatic actions that would not result in incidental take without specific future actions will not be ...
A federal district court in Arkansas recently issued a decision clarifying that the obligation to consult under section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) extends to the Small Business Administration and the Farm Service Agency when they provide loan guarantees to farmers. The case, Buffalo River Watershed Alliance v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Case No. 13-450 (E.D. Ark. Dec. 2, 2014), involves a concentrated animal feeding operation in Arkansas that obtained loan guarantees from the Small Business Administration and the Farm Service Agency. The Farm Service Agency ...
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of California recently signed an order on a stipulation (pdf) in Murphy v. United States Forest Service that bars the Forest Service from proceeding with implementation of the Upper Echo Lake Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project in 2014 (Project), and requires the Forest Service to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the effects of the Project on the endangered Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog (Rana sierrae) before proceeding further with the Project.
The Forest Service approved the Upper Echo ...
In a unanimous decision, eleven active judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the duty to consult under section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when a federal agency action may affect a listed species or designated critical habitat of such species applies to the decision of the Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) to renew long-term contracts to provide water to non-Federal parties. The decision, which reversed prior decisions by a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel and federal district court, effectively requires the Bureau to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) regarding the effects of contract renewals on the threatened delta smelt and to renegotiate the contracts following such consultation.
The decision has potentially far-reaching implications in California because it suggests that even those who hold long-term contracts with the United States for the provision of water or senior water rights under state law must comply with the Endangered Species Act.
In 2012, the Mill Fire burned almost 30,000 acres in California, destroying large areas of forest, including threatened Northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) habitat. Even after the Mill Fire was finally snuffed out, it continued to have a lasting impact on the environment, as the fire created hazardous conditions along roads and trails used by the public and the National Park Service.
After preparing an Environmental Assessment and Biological Assessment, on April 23, 2013, the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) approved the Mill Fire Salvage ...
On June 11, 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a guidance memo (pdf) regarding its obligations under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. The memo focuses on the Corps’ consultation obligations under section 7(a)(2). Notably, the Corps makes no reference to the Corps’ obligation under section 7(a)(1) to utilize [its] authorities in furtherance of the purposes of this Act by carrying out programs for the conservation of endangered species and threatened species listed pursuant to section 4 of this Act.
Section 7(a)(2) requires a federal action agency such as the ...
In a published opinion (pdf) affirming the denial of preliminary injunctive relief, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that "there is no statutory mandate to consider cumulative effects during informal consultation." Conservation Congress v. U.S. Forest Serv., No. 12-16452 (June 13, 2012).
In order to address issues in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service proposed the Mudflow Vegetation Management Project (Project). The Project included a variety of activities, including thinning, sanitation, and regeneration. Because the ...
On June 1, 2012, a sharply divided Ninth Circuit sitting en banc filed an opinion in Karuk Tribe of California v. U.S. Forest Service, No. 05-16801 (June 1, 2012) (pdf) holding that U.S. Forest Service "approvals" of notices of intent (NOIs) to undertake suction dredge mining are discretionary agency actions that may affect listed coho salmon designated critical habitat in the Klamath National Forest, thus triggering a duty to consult under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The en banc opinion reverses both the district court and a prior panel opinion in which a divided three-judge panel held that the Forest Service was not required to consult because the "approvals" at issue are tantamount to decisions not to require "plans of operations" for proposed dredging, and are therefore agency inaction, not agency action. Judge William A. Fletcher wrote the dissenting opinion in last year's decision, but he wrote for the 7-4 majority of the en banc court.
In a recently issued draft biological opinion (PDF) , the National Marine Fisheries Service (Service) has concluded that EPA's registration of products containing the herbicides oryzalin, pendimethalin, and tricluralin is likely to jeopardize the survival of approximately half of the Pacific salmonid populations listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The draft biological opinion is the latest milestone in a series of controversial ESA section 7 consultations between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Service regarding EPA's ...
On March 8, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California entered judgment in Coalition for a Sustainable Delta and Kern County Water Agency v. Federal Emergency Management Agency, et al., No 1:09-cv-02024 (E.D. Cal.) based on a settlement agreement in which FEMA agreed to request consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act regarding the impacts of its implementation of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) on threatened and endangered ...
The United States District Court for the District of Oregon issued a decision (pdf) invalidating the National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) 2008 and 2010 biological opinions for operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) by the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation after the parties to the litigation challenging those decisions filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The court held that NMFS improperly made a no jeopardy determination with respect to certain listed salmonids on the basis of unidentified habitat mitigation measures.
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 ...
In a decision that addresses a number of the more difficult issues the federal wildlife agencies grapple with during the section 7 consultation process, the United States District Court for the District of Arizona recently struck down (pdf) a biological opinion (pdf) issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service for ongoing operations at Fort Huachuca that affect species in the upper San Pedro River area of southeastern Arizona. The court also held that the Department of the Army violated its section 7 obligation by relying on the legally flawed biological opinion.
Fort Huachuca is a major military base in southeastern Arizona. Base operations affect two listed species, the endangered Huachuca water umbel (Lilaeopsis schaffneriana ssp. recurva) and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus). The court identified two categories of impacts to the species: direct and indirect effects of activities within the Fort’s boundaries and indirect effects on a portion of the San Pedro River including groundwater and surface water consumption.
In a letter to the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), 18 members of Congress urged the Obama Administration to "ensure that NMFS, EPA, the Department of the Interior, USDA, and DOJ work together" to strengthen the modeling and to use the best scientific and commercially available information to re-evaluate existing biological opinions (BiOps) and to inform forthcoming BiOps for EPA pesticide registrations.
The members of Congress claim that the existing BiOps, which prohibit the application of certain pesticides to cropland within certain buffer zones adjacent to streams, rivers, wetlands, and floodplain habitat to protect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead, "will force family farmers out of business and devastate rural communities and trade throughout the districts we represent, while crippling our food production capacity for the foreseeable future." According to the authors, the BiOps issued to date expand existing buffer zones to such a great extent that "it would affect millions of acres in the Northwest and California, including a staggering 61 percent of farmland in Washington state and 55 percent in Oregon."
The 18 members of Congress argue that the consultation process between the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and EPA for the first of the pesticide BiOps (issued in November 2008) was flawed because it lacked transparency, consultation with the agricultural community, and the opportunity for public comment. More fundamentally, they argue that NMFS's consultation for all three of the existing BiOps ignored the best available scientific and commercial data on the prevalence of the pesticides in salmon spawning waterways.
The letter's authors cite a September 2008 letter from EPA's Director of Pesticide Programs to NMFS, which criticized the July 31, 2008 draft BiOp for failing to disclose NMFS's rationale for its determination that use of chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion will jeopardize the continued existence of dozens of listed salmonids in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. In the September 2008 letter, EPA also complained that it could not meaningfully discuss the proposed Reasonable and Prudent Alternative because the BiOp "fails to identify a level of exposure to these pesticides that would not result, in NMFS['s] opinion, in jeopardy to the species."
As explained in more detail below, the letter's authors are especially concerned that the administration orchestrate future interagency consultations as well as consultations with the agriculture industry and other stakeholders because EPA faces a host of other court-mandated deadlines to determine whether other pesticide registrations may affect listed species, and if so, to consult.
On April 28, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington granted a motion for summary judgment filed by Wild Fish Conservancy, holding that EPA and NMFS failed to use the best scientific and commercial data available in their informal consultation regarding EPA's approval of water-quality standards that exempted salmon farms from various state water quality standards. Wild Fish Conservancy v. U.S.E.P.A., No. C08-0156, 2010 WL 1734850 (W.D. Wash April 28, 2010).
Specifically, the court held that when EPA and NMFS engaged in informal consultation over EPA's approval of the disputed water quality standards, they should have considered the recent recovery plans for Puget Sound Chinook salmon (2007) and for the Southern Resident Killer Whales (2008) (PDF). Both recovery plans expressly stated that they were developed based on the best scientific data available regarding each species. The letter that NMFS issued concurring in EPA's not-likely-to-adversely-affect determination referenced three earlier studies prepared by NMFS and one prepared by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, but not the more recent recovery plans. Indeed, the court found that the administrative record was devoid of any mention of the two recovery plans.
Ultimately, the court ordered EPA and NMFS to reconsider whether formal consultation is required taking into account the best available science.
On March 10, 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a letter (PDF) on behalf of 50 conservation groups encouraging the Secretaries of the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce to adopt a radical new definition of adverse modification of critical habitat. The proposed definition differs in two ways from the current regulatory definition; one uncontroversial and benign, while the other is likely to be controversial and far-reaching.
Currently, adverse modification is defined by regulation as a direct or indirect alteration that appreciably diminishes the value of critical habitat for both the survival and recovery of a listed species. The groups would have adverse modification of critical habitat be defined as a direct or indirect alteration that appreciably diminishes the value of any portion of any area of designated critical habitat for either the survival or recovery of a listed species, with appreciably diminishes defined as any action that would destroy or degrade any primary constituent element such that the habitat would be, measurably or perceptibly, of less value to the species. As explained below, the change to either . . . or would be benign; but the proposed addition of any portion of any area could dramatically alter the way the Services administer Section 7 of the ESA.
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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