W. Watersheds Project v. Ashe, Case No. 4:11–CV–00462–EJL–REB.

CourtU.S. District Court — District of Idaho
Writing for the CourtEDWARD J. LODGE
Citation948 F.Supp.2d 1166
Docket NumberCase No. 4:11–CV–00462–EJL–REB.
Decision Date04 June 2013
PartiesWESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT, Plaintiff, v. Daniel ASHE, Director, and United States Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the United States, Defendants.

948 F.Supp.2d 1166

WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT, Plaintiff,
v.
Daniel ASHE, Director, and United States Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the United States, Defendants.

Case No. 4:11–CV–00462–EJL–REB.

United States District Court,
D. Idaho.

June 4, 2013.


[948 F.Supp.2d 1169]


Todd C. Tucci, Advocates for the West, Boise, ID, for Plaintiff.

Mary Elisabeth Hollingsworth, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, Syrena Case Hargrove, U.S. Attorney's Office, Boise, ID, for Defendants.


MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

EDWARD J. LODGE, District Judge.

Before the Court in the above entitled matter are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Defendants' Cross-motions for Summary Judgment. The parties have submitted their briefing on the motions and the matters are now ripe for the Court's review.

Having fully reviewed the record herein, the Court finds that the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented in the briefs and record. Accordingly, in the interest of avoiding further delay, and because the Court conclusively finds that the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument, the motions shall be decided on the record before this Court without oral argument.

Introduction

Plaintiff Western Watersheds Project (“Plaintiff”) filed the instant action challenging the September 30, 2010 Listing Decision (“Listing Decision”) issued by Defendants United States Fish and Wildlife Service and United States Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe (collectively referred to as “the Service”). (Dkt. 1.) The Listing Decision determined protection of the pygmy rabbit ( Brachylagus idahoensis ) as an endangered or threatened species was not warranted under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531 et seq. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the “not warranted” finding, and asks the Court to reverse and remand the Listing Decision to the Service for a new listing determination consistent with the requirements of the ESA. (Dkt. 31, p.

[948 F.Supp.2d 1170]

2.) The State of Wyoming (the “State”) successfully intervened in this case as a Defendant–Intervenor in order to defend the Service's “not warranted” determination. (Dkt. 13.) Plaintiff, the Service and the State have each filed cross-motions for summary judgment, which the Court now considers. (Dkts. 30, 33, 27.)

I. BACKGROUND
1. Legal Background

The ESA was enacted in 1973 “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, [and] to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered and threatened species.” ESA § 2(b), 16 U.S.C. § 1531(b). The ESA defines an “endangered species” as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” 16 U.S.C. § 1532(6). A “threatened species” is “any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” 16 U.S.C. § 1532(20). If a species is listed as endangered or threatened, various statutory prohibitions help to protect and allow for the survival and recovery of the species.1See, e.g.,16 U.S.C. § 1533(d); 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a)(2); 16 U.S.C. § 1538.

Whether a particular species should be listed as either “endangered” or “threatened” is determined by the process set forth in Section 4 of the ESA. 216 U.S.C. § 1533. Under this section, the Service is required to determine whether a species is endangered or threatened “because of any” of the following five factors:

(A) the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range;

(B) overutilization for commercial, recreation, scientific, or education purposes;

(C) disease or predation;

(D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or

(E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

16 U.S.C. § 1533(a)(1)(A)-(E).

Although the Service considered all five of the above factors in the Listing Decision, Plaintiff's Complaint challenges only certain aspects of the Service's assessment of Factor A-“the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of [the species'] habitat or range.” (Dkt. 1, pp. 12–15, ¶¶ 44–55.) The parties' dispute on review accordingly centers on the Service's assessment of Factor A.

[948 F.Supp.2d 1171]

The ESA requires that the decision of whether to list a species must be founded “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available to [the Service] after conducting a review of the status of the species ... [.]” 16 U.S.C. § 1533(b)(1)(A). An agency's determination of what constitutes the “best available science” is accorded substantial deference. San Luis & Delta–Mendota Water Auth. v. Salazar, 760 F.Supp.2d 855, 871 (E.D.Cal.2010). The Service is also required to consult with affected states when considering whether to list a species as endangered or threatened, and to “tak[e] into account those efforts ... being made by any State ... to protect such species” under existing “conservation practices.” 16 U.S.C. § 1533(b)(1)(A).

If the Service finds that listing is warranted, it must publish a proposed listing regulation in the Federal Register. Id. at § 1533(b)(3)(B)(ii). The Service must either publish in the Federal Register a final regulation listing the species, or withdraw the proposed listing, within one year of publishing a warranted finding. Id. at § 1533(b)(6)(A). Designation of critical habitat for the listed species must accompany or soon follow a final listing regulation. Id. at § 1533(b)(6)(C). The ultimate goal of the ESA is to recover listed species to the point where they no longer need ESA protection. Id. at § 1531(b)-(c); § 1532(3).

2. The Pygmy Rabbit

The following facts are taken from the Listing Decision and do not appear to be disputed by the parties. The pygmy rabbit is the smallest member of the family Leporidae (rabbits and hares) in North America. (Administrative Record (“AR”) p. 2.) The weight of an adult pygmy rabbit ranges from 0.54 to 1.2 pounds, and the length ranges from 9.1 to 12.1 inches. ( Id.) The species can be distinguished from other rabbits by its small size, gray color, short rounded ears, small hind legs, and by the absence of white on its tail. ( Id.)

Pygmy rabbits are typically found in areas of tall, dense sagebrush cover and are considered a sagebrush obligate species because they are highly dependent on sagebrush to provide both food and shelter throughout the year. ( Id.) The winter diet of a pygmy rabbit is composed of up to 99 percent sagebrush, which is unique among leporids. ( Id.) In Idaho, the pygmy rabbit's spring and summer diet was found to consist of approximately 51 percent sagebrush, 39 percent grasses, and 10 percent forbs. ( Id.)

The pygmy rabbit is one of two rabbits in North America that digs its own burrows. ( Id.) These burrows are typically found in relatively deep, loose soils of wind-borne or water-borne origin. ( Id.) Pygmy rabbits, especially juveniles, likely use burrows for protection from predators and inclement weather. ( Id.) Pygmy rabbits are relatively slow and vulnerable in more open areas, and evade predators by maneuvering through the dense shrub cover of their preferred habitat or by escaping to their burrows. ( Id.) Due to their specialized habitat requirements, pygmy rabbits are not evenly distributed across their range. ( Id. at 4.) They are found in areas within their broader distribution where sagebrush cover is sufficiently tall and dense, and where soils are sufficiently deep and loose to allow burrowing. ( Id.)

After initial declines, pygmy rabbits may not have the same capacity for rapid increases in numbers that characterize other species. ( Id.) This may be due to their close association with specific components of sagebrush ecosystems, and the relatively limited availability of their preferred habitats. ( Id.) No study has documented rapid increases in pygmy rabbit numbers in response to environmental conditions. ( Id.) Nor are long term population monitoring

[948 F.Supp.2d 1172]

studies available to indicate whether population fluctuations or cycles occur for pygmy rabbits or if seasonal or other habitat shifts or movements have been misinterpreted as declines. ( Id.) The annual mortality rate of adult pygmy rabbits may be as high as 88 percent, and more than 50 percent of juveniles can die within roughly 5 weeks of birth. ( Id.) Predation is the main cause of pygmy rabbit mortality. ( Id.)

The general historical and current geographic range of the pygmy rabbit includes portions of eight states, including Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, and sections of Washington (the Columbia Basin area), Northeastern California, and Southwestern Montana. ( Id. at 4–5.) To determine the historical and current distribution of pygmy rabbits in these areas (excluding the Columbia Basin area in Washington, where the pygmy rabbit is already listed as endangered), the Service reviewed published scientific peer-reviewed literature; unpublished agency documents; dissertations; theses; databases maintained by State heritage programs, State wildlife agencies, and Federal agencies; survey data sheets; museum records; electronic mail records; and agency notes to the files. ( Id.)

The Service also undertook a large-scale, range-wide analysis of Service databases documenting surveying records of pygmy rabbits across its traditional habitat. ( Id. at 8.) The Service ultimately concluded pygmy rabbit activity continues to occur in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah, in a similar distributional pattern as compared with historical information. ( Id. at 8–15.) Although it found the pygmy rabbit may have suffered range contraction in portions of its historical range in Northeastern California, the Service ultimately determined pygmy rabbits continue to occur throughout their historical range, as well as in newly discovered sites in all...

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  • Humane Soc'y of U.S. v. Jewell, Civil Action No. 13–186 BAH
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • December 19, 2014
    ...Colo. River Cutthroat Trout v. Salazar, 898 F.Supp.2d 191, 201 (D.D.C.2012) (finding phrase ambiguous); W. Watersheds Project v. Ashe, 948 F.Supp.2d 1166, 1184 (D.Idaho 2013) (“Because the phrase is ambiguous, the [FWS] has a wide degree of discretion in determining whether the [species] is......
  • Sawtooth Mountain Ranch LLC v. United States, Case No. 1:19-cv-0118-CWD
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Idaho
    • June 30, 2020
    ..."The party challenging an agency's action as arbitrary and capricious bears the burden of proof." W. Watersheds Project v. Ashe, 948 F. Supp. 2d 1166, 1174 (D. Idaho 2013) (citing WildEarth Guardians v. Salazar, 741 F.Supp.2d 89, 97 (D.D.C. 2010)). The Court may reverse the agency's decisio......
  • Sawtooth Mountain Ranch LLC v. United States, 1:19-cv-00118-CWD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. District of Idaho
    • February 24, 2022
    ...“The party challenging an agency's action as arbitrary and capricious bears the burden of proof.” W. Watersheds Project v. Ashe, 948 F.Supp.2d 1166, 1174 (D. Idaho 2013) (citing WildEarth Guardians v. Salazar, 741 F.Supp.2d 89, 97 (D.D.C. 2010)). ANALYSIS 1. Affirmative Defense No. 5 - Uncl......
  • Sawtooth Mountain Ranch LLC v. U.S. Forest Serv., Case No. 1:19-cv-0118-CWD
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Idaho
    • June 13, 2019
    ..."The party challenging an agency's action as arbitrary and capricious bears the burden of proof." W. Watersheds Project v. Ashe, 948 F. Supp. 2d 1166, 1174 (D. Idaho 2013) (citing WildEarth Guardians v. Salazar, 741 F.Supp.2d 89, 97 (D.D.C. 2010)). To determine whether an agency's action wa......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
13 cases
  • Humane Soc'y of U.S. v. Jewell, Civil Action No. 13–186 BAH
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • December 19, 2014
    ...Colo. River Cutthroat Trout v. Salazar, 898 F.Supp.2d 191, 201 (D.D.C.2012) (finding phrase ambiguous); W. Watersheds Project v. Ashe, 948 F.Supp.2d 1166, 1184 (D.Idaho 2013) (“Because the phrase is ambiguous, the [FWS] has a wide degree of discretion in determining whether the [species] is......
  • Sawtooth Mountain Ranch LLC v. United States, Case No. 1:19-cv-0118-CWD
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Idaho
    • June 30, 2020
    ..."The party challenging an agency's action as arbitrary and capricious bears the burden of proof." W. Watersheds Project v. Ashe, 948 F. Supp. 2d 1166, 1174 (D. Idaho 2013) (citing WildEarth Guardians v. Salazar, 741 F.Supp.2d 89, 97 (D.D.C. 2010)). The Court may reverse the agency's decisio......
  • Sawtooth Mountain Ranch LLC v. United States, 1:19-cv-00118-CWD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. District of Idaho
    • February 24, 2022
    ...“The party challenging an agency's action as arbitrary and capricious bears the burden of proof.” W. Watersheds Project v. Ashe, 948 F.Supp.2d 1166, 1174 (D. Idaho 2013) (citing WildEarth Guardians v. Salazar, 741 F.Supp.2d 89, 97 (D.D.C. 2010)). ANALYSIS 1. Affirmative Defense No. 5 - Uncl......
  • Sawtooth Mountain Ranch LLC v. U.S. Forest Serv., Case No. 1:19-cv-0118-CWD
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Idaho
    • June 13, 2019
    ..."The party challenging an agency's action as arbitrary and capricious bears the burden of proof." W. Watersheds Project v. Ashe, 948 F. Supp. 2d 1166, 1174 (D. Idaho 2013) (citing WildEarth Guardians v. Salazar, 741 F.Supp.2d 89, 97 (D.D.C. 2010)). To determine whether an agency's action wa......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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