As the Trump administration is pushing forward on its deregulatory agenda and, in particular, its efforts to improve the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and its implementation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (together, the Services), the Supreme Court is poised to hear a landmark case on designation of critical habitat under the ESA that could provide some guideposts for the Services’ new regulations.
The Corps Struggles to Balance Competing Constitutional and Statutory Duties
Federal agencies must often balance competing policy concerns and legal requirements. This process may be difficult and fraught with intense public feedback, and frequently results in litigation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) has found itself in the hot seat over how it manages the nation’s rivers, pitting its obligations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) against private property rights. Litigation in the federal courts may soon determine whether, and if so how, responsible the federal government is for unintentional or incidental flooding when the government manages rivers for the benefit of listed species. These cases also bring to the fore a burning question: When can government agencies be held responsible for natural events? With the increase in climate change-related litigation nationwide, this issue will likely only rise in prominence. Continue Reading Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
As recently noted here, shortly after the Trump administration took office last year, the Solicitor’s Office for the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) withdrew a legal opinion it issued in the waning days of the Obama administration which concluded that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) prohibits incidental take of migratory birds, pending further review of the question. The results of that further review were revealed on December 22, 2017, when the Solicitor’s Office issued a new opinion reaching the opposite conclusion.
Uncertainty has reigned for a number of years about the scope of the take prohibition under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). In the latest effort to address this problem, the House Committee on Natural Resources has attached an amendment to a pending energy bill that would clarify that the MBTA does not prohibit incidental take of protected birds.
The MBTA, a criminal statute enacted in 1918, is one of the oldest wildlife protection laws on the books and covers over 1,000 bird species, including approximately 90 percent of all birds occurring in North America and many common species. The MBTA makes it illegal for any person to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, … ship, … transport, … carry, … receive … at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, … or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” 16 U.S.C. § 703.
When Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems on which they depend, it emphasized the need to strike the proper balance between protecting species and allowing productive human activities. Widespread concern that this balance has been lost has sparked movement within the Trump Administration and Congress to improve the ESA and its implementation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (together, the Services). Many of these reform efforts are focused on ensuring earlier and increased involvement of states and other regulated entities and on improving the listing/delisting process to make certain that the extraordinary protections of the ESA are imposed, where warranted, and lifted, as appropriate.
From the Penobscot River in Maine to the St. Mary’s River in Florida, the Atlantic sturgeon ranges, swimming periodically up river to spawn and returning to marine waters when it is done. With a lifespan of up to 60 years, the Atlantic sturgeon can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Despite this species’ mighty proportions and vast range, five distinct population segments of the species have been listed by the as threatened or endangered.
Several presidential administrations have sought to shorten the lengthy process for obtaining federal authorizations and permits, with particular attention on infrastructure projects that usually require multiple federal permits with accompanying environmental reviews. Despite consistent interest in improving this process, delays persist, in part because of how courts have interpreted the level of analysis required during these environmental reviews. This past Tuesday, President Trump issued a new Executive Order (EO) 13807: “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects.” As this EO is implemented, the big question is: How much relief can this or any other executive action provide?
Yesterday President Trump signed several Executive Orders (EOs) and Presidential Memoranda designed to speed environmental permitting and reviews. Among them is an EO to “Expedite Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects.” While past administrations have recognized the costs and delays of federal environmental permitting and encouraged timely decisions by regulatory agencies (e.g., EOs 13,212, 13,274 and EO 13,604), President Trump’s EO reflects a new sense of determination by the White House to move important infrastructure projects forward. The EO reflects a recognition that major infrastructure projects trigger an array of overlapping environmental and natural resource laws and requirements.