Determining which areas constitute habitat for listed species has important consequences under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA” or “Act”), yet “habitat” is not currently defined by the Act or its implementing regulations.  On August 5, 2020, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (jointly, “the Services”) proposed a rule to define “habitat” for purposes of designating “critical habitat” under section 4 of the Endangered Species Act.  See 85 Fed. Reg. 47,333 (Aug. 5, 2020).  The Services’ proposal responds to the Supreme Court’s November 27, 2018, unanimous holding in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 139 S. Ct. 361 (2018), that an area is eligible for designation as critical habitat under the ESA only if the area is actually habitat for that species.  Accordingly, a final rule defining “habitat” would determine which areas of land and water are eligible for designation as critical habitat.  Such designations can affect projects that require federal agency permits or funding, because ESA section 7 consultation requires federal agencies to ensure that their actions are not likely to adversely modify or destroy designated critical habitat.  The result for federally approved or funded projects can be increased permitting costs and risks, and longer timelines.  The proposal’s comment period ended on September 4.  Over 160,000 comments were submitted.  Stakeholders now await a final rule.

Continue Reading Services Propose Definition of Habitat for ESA Regulations

The first comprehensive revision of the NEPA implementing regulations in over forty years goes into effect today. Litigants sought a preliminary injunction to block implementation of the rule nationwide, but their motion was denied by a district court late last week. While litigation is ongoing in three district courts, the new rule will apply to all new NEPA reviews started on or after September 14, 2020, and agencies will have discretion to apply the new rule to ongoing NEPA reviews initiated before September 14.
Continue Reading After Surviving Preliminary Injunction Motion, New NEPA Rule Becomes Effective Today

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses and Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 7 consultations are high on the list of project time, cost and risk drivers. The impact of these environmental reviews on projects often turns on the scope of those reviews, which in turn depends on determining which effects will be caused by the action. In August 2019 the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service established, for the first time, a regulatory causation standard governing ESA section 7 consultations, and, in January 2020, the Council on Environmental Quality proposed a new regulatory causation standard governing NEPA reviews.
Continue Reading Streamlining NEPA and ESA Reviews: Importance of the Scope of Analysis

On November 4, 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the Clean Water Act (CWA) section 404 permit issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) for the extension of an existing phosphate mine in central Florida. Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, No. 18-10541 (11th Cir. Nov. 4, 2019). The Corps permit authorizes the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States that comprise a small portion of the mining extension. Opponents challenged the permit in the Middle District of Florida, claiming the issuance of the permit violated the CWA, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by not considering “downstream” effects, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The district court rejected all of the claims, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
Continue Reading Eleventh Circuit Confirms Proper Scope of NEPA Review Governing Corps Clean Water Act Section 404 Permit

The Endangered Species Act increasingly plays a larger role in environmental law and the federal permitting process for infrastructure projects. Hunton Andrews Kurth Partner Kerry McGrath and Associate Brian Levey give an inside look at the complex process of obtaining federal authorization for “take” of endangered species.
Continue Reading VIDEO Inside Look: Endangered Species Act (ESA)

Policy makers in California have pledged to resist Trump administration policy changes on environmental and other issues. Senate Bill 1 (SB 1), proposing the California Environmental, Public Health and Workers Defense Act of 2019, is the California legislature’s current preemptive response to the administration’s attempts to modify certain federal environmental and worker safety laws.

SB 1 has passed the California Senate. It is awaiting a final hearing in the State Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, likely sometime in mid‑to‑late August. After that, it moves to the Assembly floor, where a final vote is required by the end of California’s legislative session on September 13, 2019.
Continue Reading SB 1: California’s Attempt to Halt Federal Environmental and Worker Safety Deregulation

In overturning a US Fish and Wildlife Service decision not to list the arctic grayling, the Ninth Circuit has shifted the burden to federal wildlife agencies to explain why listing is not appropriate when there is uncertainty regarding potential climate change impacts.
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Overturns Climate Change-Based Decision Not to List Species Under ESA

As the Trump Administration is pushing forward on its deregulatory agenda and, in particular, its efforts to improve the Endangered Species Act and its implementation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, 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.
Continue Reading Supreme Court to Evaluate Critical Habitat Limits as Services Ramp up ESA Reform Efforts

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 has found itself in the hot seat over how it manages the nation’s rivers, pitting its obligations under the Endangered Species Act 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

On April 16, 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a final rule removing the black-capped vireo (BCV) from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. 83 Fed. Reg. 16,228. The BCV is a migratory songbird that breeds and nests in Texas, Oklahoma, and northern Mexico, and winters along Mexico’s Pacific coast. Its breeding habitat includes shrublands and open woodlands. The delisting decision is based on the Service’s determination “that the primary threats to the [BCV] have been reduced or managed to the point that the species has recovered.” The delisting will take effect on May 16, 2018. The Service will work with the States of Texas and Oklahoma to implement a 5-year post-delisting monitoring program in compliance with section 4(g)(1) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Continue Reading U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Publishes Final Rule Delisting the Black-Capped Vireo