Supreme Court limits reach of Endangered Species Act

Ruling could help AMA efforts to protect and expand recreational access

AMA News Author (no byline)

The U.S. Supreme Court has limited the reach of the Endangered Species Act to areas in which a threatened animal currently lives.

The unanimous ruling on Tuesday set aside a ruling that restricted development in a Louisiana woods where an endangered frog species could live. The 100 surviving dusky gopher frogs live only in a Mississippi woods nearby.

Photo by Jeff Kardas

The ruling could help the AMA in its efforts to protect and expand responsible motorized access to public lands across the country, as well as more use of private property for recreational purposes.

The case was Weyerhaeuser Co. versus the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The dusky gopher frog once lived in an area designated by the Fish and Wildlife Service, but the land had long been used as a commercial timber plantation, and no frogs had been spotted there for decades, according to the Supreme Court ruling.

The agency concluded the area met the statutory definition of "unoccupied critical habitat," because its rare, high-quality breeding ponds and distance from existing frog populations made it essential for the species’ conservation.

The landowners, including Weyerhaeuser and several families, sued, contending that the "closed-canopy timber plantation" could not be critical habitat for the frog, because this species lives in open-canopy forests.

Weyerhaeuser argued that habitat cannot include areas where the species could not currently survive.

The Supreme Court held that "An area is eligible for designation as critical habitat ... only if it is habitat for the species."

Although unanimous, the narrowly written decision said the Endangered Species Act does not define the crucial word “habitat,” and the court sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the matter.

The ruling could affect other designations made by the Interior Department of lands not currently populated by an endangered species.