Markle Interests, LLC v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., CIVIL ACTION NO. 13-234 SECTION "F"

CourtUnited States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Louisiana)
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 13-234 SECTION "F"
Decision Date22 August 2014




August 22, 2014

c/w 13-362 and 13-413
(Pertains to all cases)


These consolidated proceedings ask whether a federal government agency's inclusion of a privately-owned tree farm in its final designation of critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, was arbitrary or capricious. Before the Court are 11 motions, including nine cross-motions for summary judgment:

(1) Weyerhaeuser Company's motion for summary judgment, (2) the federal defendants' cross-motion, and (3) the intervenor defendants' cross-motion; (4) Markle Interests LLC's motion for summary judgment, (5) the federal defendants' cross-motion, and (6) the intervenor defendants' cross-motion; (7) the Poitevent Landowners' motion for summary judgment; (8) the federal defendants' cross-motion, and (9) the intervenor defendants' cross-motion.

Additionally before the Court are two motions to strike extra-record evidence submitted by Poitevent Landowners, one filed by federal defendants and one by intervenor defendants. For the reasons the follow, the federal and intervenor defendants' motions to strike extra-record evidence are GRANTED; the plaintiffs'

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motions for summary judgment are GRANTED in part (insofar as they have standing) and DENIED in part; and, finally, the defendants' motions are DENIED in part (insofar as defendants challenge plaintiffs' standing) and GRANTED in part.


Plaintiffs in these consolidated cases -- landowners and a lessee of a tree farm in Louisiana -- challenge the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) final rule designating 1,544 acres of a privately-owned timber farm in St. Tammany Parish as critical habitat that is essential for the conservation of the dusky gopher frog, an endangered species.

Only about 100 adult dusky gopher frogs remain in the wild. The frog, listed as endangered in 2001, is now located only in Mississippi; it does not presently occupy the plaintiffs' tree farm and was last sighted there in the 1960s. Nevertheless, FWS included certain acreage of the plaintiffs' tree farm in its rule designating critical habitat for the frog, finding this land essential to conserving the dusky gopher frog. A determination plaintiffs insist is arbitrary. To better understand the factual and procedural background of this challenge to federal agency action, it is helpful first to consider the context of the administrative framework germane to the present controversy.

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The Endangered Species Act

Due to the alarming trend toward species extinction "as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation," Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1531, et. seq., (ESA) to conserve endangered and threatened species and the ecosystems on which they depend. 16 U.S.C. § 1531(a), (b). By defining "conservation" as "the use of all methods and procedures which are necessary to bring any endangered or threatened species to the point at which the measures provided [by the ESA] are no longer necessary," (16 U.S.C. § 1532(3)), the Act illuminates that its objective is not only "to enable listed species ... to survive, but [also] to recover from their endangered or threatened status." Sierra Club v. FWS, 245 F.3d 434, 438 (5th Cir. 2001); Tenn. Valley Authority v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 184 (1978)("The plain intent of Congress in enacting this statute was to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.").

The U.S. Secretary of the Department of Interior is charged with administering the Act; the Secretary delegates authority to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.1 To achieve the Act's survival and recovery objectives, FWS is obligated to utilize enumerated

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criteria to promulgate regulations that list species that are "threatened" or "endangered". 16 U.S.C. § 1533 (stating, in mandatory terms, the requirement to determine threatened or endangered species status: "The Secretary shall determine...."). A species is listed as "endangered" if it is "in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range." 16 U.S.C. § 1532(6). Listing triggers statutory protections for the species. See, e.g., 16 U.S.C. §, 1538(a) (setting forth prohibited acts, such as "taking" (§ 1532(19)) listed animals).

Listing also triggers FWS's statutory duty to designate critical habitat; such designation being another tool in FWS's arsenal to accomplish the Act's species survival and recovery objectives. See 16 U.S.C. § 1533(a)(3)(A)("The Secretary, by regulation promulgated in accordance with subsection (b) of this section and to the maximum extent prudent and determinable ... (i) shall concurrently with making a [listing] determination ... designate any habitat of such species...."). Like its listing duty, FWS's habitat designation duty is mandatory;2 the designation

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must be based on "the best scientific data available ... after taking into consideration the economic impact, the impact on national security, and any other relevant impact." 16 U.S.C. § 1533(b)(2). After weighing the impacts of designation, FWS may, however, exclude an area from critical habitat unless it "determines ... that the failure to designate such area as critical habitat will result in the extinction of the species concerned." Id.

Notably, in defining "critical habitat" for an endangered species, the ESA differentiates between habitat that is "occupied" and habitat that is "unoccupied" at the time of listing:

(5)(A) The term "critical habitat" for a threatened or endangered species means-

(i) the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species, at the time it is listed in accordance with the provisions of section 1533 of this title, on which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection; and
(ii) specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed in accordance with the provisions of section 1533 of this title, upon a determination by the Secretary that such areas are essential for the conservation of the species.

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16 U.S.C. § 1532(5)(A). Thus, in so differentiating, by its express terms, the Act contemplates the designation of both "occupied" and "unoccupied" critical habitat. FWS may designate as critical occupied habitat that contains certain physical or biological features called "primary constituent elements", or "PCEs".3 50 C.F.R. § 424.12(b). FWS may designate as critical unoccupied habitat so long as it determines it is "essential for the conservation of the species" and "only when a designation limited to its present range would be inadequate to ensure the conservation of the species." 50 C.F.R. § 424.12(e).

Once designated, critical habitat is protected from harm if and when the ESA's federal agency consultation mechanism is triggered: federal agencies must consult with FWS on any actions "authorized, funded, or carried out by" the agency to ensure that their actions do "not result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat...." 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a)(2).4 If FWS or

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the consulting federal agency determines that a contemplated action "may affect ... critical habitat", the agency and FWS must engage in "formal" consultation. 50 C.F.R. § 402.14(a). If FWS finds that a contemplated agency action, such as the issuance of a permit, is likely to adversely modify critical habitat, FWS must suggest reasonable and prudent alternatives that the consulting agency could take to avoid adverse modification. 50 C.F.R. § 402.14(h)(3). "Reasonable and prudent alternatives" must be "economically and technologically feasible." 50 C.F.R. § 402.02. Thus, if a private party's action has no federal nexus (if it is not authorized, funded, or carried out by a federal agency), no affirmative obligations are triggered by the critical habitat designation. In other words, absent a federal nexus, FWS cannot compel a private landowner to make changes to restore his designated property into optimal habitat.

The Dusky Gopher Frog

The dusky gopher frog (Rana Sevosa) is a darkly-colored, moderately-sized frog with warts covering its back and dusky spots on its belly. It is a terrestrial amphibian endemic to the longleaf pine ecosystem. The frogs "spend most of their lives underground5 in forested habitat consisting of fire-maintained,

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open-canopied, pine woodlands historically dominated by longleaf pine." 77 Fed. Reg. at 35129 - 35131. They travel to small, isolated ephemeral ponds6 to breed, then return to their subterranean forested environment, followed by their offspring that survive to metamorphose into frogs. Amphibians like the dusky gopher frog need to maintain moist skin for respiration and osmoregulation. To this end, the areas connecting their wetland and terrestrial habitats must be protected to provide cover and moisture during migration.7

The risk for its extinction is high. Only about 100 adult dusky gopher frogs are left in the wild. They are located...

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