District Court Strikes Down Endangered Species Protections For Exceeding The Scope Of Federal Power

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This after­noon (Novem­ber 5, 2014) a dis­trict court in Utah held that the fed­er­al pro­hi­bi­tion against “tak­ing” Utah prairie dogs — list­ed as “threat­ened” under the Endan­gered Species Act — exceeds the scope of fed­er­al pow­er under the Com­merce and Nec­es­sary and Prop­er claus­es. Here is how Judge Dee Ben­son sum­ma­rized his con­clu­sion in Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of Prop­er­ty Own­ers v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice:

Although the Com­merce Clause autho­rizes Con­gress to do many things, it does not autho­rize Con­gress to reg­u­late takes of a pure­ly intrastate species that has no sub­stan­tial effect on inter­state com­merce. Con­gress sim­i­lar­ly lacks author­i­ty through the Nec­es­sary and Prop­er Clause because the reg­u­la­tion of takes of Utah prairie dogs is not essen­tial or nec­es­sary to the ESA’s eco­nom­ic scheme.

This deci­sion is sig­nif­i­cant if for no oth­er rea­son that it is the first time that a fed­er­al court has held that the reg­u­la­tion of pri­vate land use exceeds the scope of Congress’s enu­mer­at­ed pow­ers.  Judge Ben­son is not the first judge to have reached this con­clu­sion, how­ev­er, as the ques­tion has split sev­er­al Cir­cuit courts. Com­merce Clause chal­lenges to ESA reg­u­la­tion have pro­duced divid­ed pan­els on the Fourth, Fifth and D.C. Cir­cuits.  More­over, although these cir­cuits all reached the same con­clu­sion, they adopt­ed con­flict­ing ratio­nales, a point not­ed by then-judge John Roberts in his first opin­ion on the D.C. Cir­cuit. For those inter­est­ed, I dis­cussed these cas­es and their con­flict­ing ratio­nales in this arti­cle in the Iowa Law Review (pp. 406–417).

At issue in PETPO v FWS, as in the pri­or Com­merce Clause chal­lenges to the ESA, is whether reg­u­la­tions lim­it­ing the tak­ing of a list­ed species is a prop­er exer­cise of the fed­er­al com­merce pow­er.  This turns on whether the tak­ing of such species can be said to “sub­stan­tial­ly affect” inter­state com­merce.  The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment notes that many activ­i­ties reg­u­lat­ed by this pro­hi­bi­tion are eco­nom­ic in nature.  Yet the pro­hi­bi­tion is not lim­it­ed to eco­nom­ic or com­mer­cial activ­i­ty. The landown­er who wish­es to mod­i­fy Utah prairie dog habi­tat to plant a gar­den is reg­u­lat­ed just the same as a real estate devel­op­er.  More­over, the pro­hi­bi­tion applies whether or not the species in ques­tion has any eco­nom­ic val­ue.  As a con­se­quence (and as I dis­cuss in the arti­cle linked above) it is not at all clear that the take pro­hi­bi­tion can be sus­tained under the rel­a­tive­ly for­mal­ist analy­sis adopt­ed by the Supreme Court in cas­es like Lopez and Mor­ri­son (and now NFIB).  Thus, PETPO argued, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment lacks the author­i­ty to reg­u­late the tak­ing of an intrastate, non-eco­nom­i­cal­ly valu­able species like the Utah prairie dog.  Judge Ben­son agreed.

Here are some more excerpts from Judge Benson’s opin­ion:

The court agrees with PETPO’s claim that the rule is non-eco­nom­ic because “the Ser­vice is reg­u­lat­ing every activ­i­ty, regard­less of its nature, if it caus­es harm to a Utah prairie dog.” (PETPO’s Mot. for Summ. J. at 24.) Addi­tion­al­ly, it is undis­put­ed that the rule in ques­tion does not con­tain any juris­dic­tion­al ele­ment that would lim­it its reach to takes that have an explic­it con­nec­tion to inter­state com­merce. (FWS’ Mot. for Summ. J. at 12.) It is also undis­put­ed that there are no express con­gres­sion­al find­ings regard­ing the effects upon inter­state com­merce of tak­ing a Utah prairie dog. Id. Final­ly, as will be demon­strat­ed below, all of Defen­dants’ argu­ments pur­port­ing to estab­lish a link between Utah prairie dog takes and a sub­stan­tial effect on inter­state com­merce are atten­u­at­ed.

Defen­dants’ argu­ment that the rule has a sub­stan­tial effect on inter­state com­merce because it has frus­trat­ed sev­er­al pro­posed agri­cul­tur­al and com­mer­cial activ­i­ties miss­es the mark. The prop­er focus of the “sub­stan­tial effect” test is the “reg­u­lat­ed activ­i­ty.” See Gon­za­les v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 23 (2005). Illus­tra­tive­ly, the Supreme Court ruled that Con­gress could reg­u­late the pure­ly local growth and con­sump­tion of wheat or mar­i­jua­na because those activ­i­ties altered the nation­al mar­ket for those com­modi­ties. Raich, 545 U.S. 1; Wickard v. Fil­burn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942). How­ev­er, the Court ruled that Con­gress could not reg­u­late the pos­ses­sion of a gun in a known school zone, even though the reg­u­la­tion of that activ­i­ty affect­ed com­merce in a vari­ety of ways (e.g. peo­ple could not sell guns in a school zone). Lopez 514 U.S. 549 (1995); see also Mor­ri­son 529 U.S. 598 (2000). In oth­er words, the ques­tion in the present case is whether take of the Utah prairie dog has a sub­stan­tial effect on inter­state com­merce, not whether the reg­u­la­tion pre­vent­ing the take has such an effect. Con­se­quent­ly, the fact that PETPO mem­bers or oth­er per­sons are pro­hib­it­ed from engag­ing in com­mer­cial activ­i­ties as a result of spe­cial rule 4(d) is irrel­e­vant to the Com­merce Clause analy­sis.

Fur­ther­more, Defen­dants’ argu­ment con­cern­ing the bio­log­i­cal val­ue of the Utah prairie dog is insuf­fi­cient to demon­strate that take of the prairie dog has a sub­stan­tial effect on inter­state com­merce. The Court acknowl­edges that the Utah prairie dog may have an effect on the ecosys­tem. Nev­er­the­less, as apt­ly observed by Chief Judge Sen­telle, “[T]he Com­merce Clause empow­ers Con­gress ‘to reg­u­late com­merce’ not ecosys­tems.’” Nation­al Ass’n of Home Builders v. Bab­bitt, 327 U.S. App. D.C. 248, 272 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (Sen­telle, J., dis­sent­ing). If Con­gress could use the Com­merce Clause to reg­u­late any­thing that might affect the ecosys­tem (to say noth­ing about its effect on com­merce), there would be no log­i­cal stop­ping point to con­gres­sion­al pow­er under the Com­merce Clause. Accord­ing­ly, the assert­ed bio­log­i­cal val­ue of the Utah prairie dog is incon­se­quen­tial in this case.…

Defen­dants’ final argu­ment, that the Nec­es­sary and Prop­er Clause autho­rizes spe­cial rule 4(d) because the rule is essen­tial to the eco­nom­ic scheme cre­at­ed by the ESA, also fails upon close exam­i­na­tion. This argu­ment is based on the Supreme Court’s rul­ing in Raich that a reg­u­la­tion may be upheld when it is an “essen­tial part of a larg­er reg­u­la­tion of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty, in which the reg­u­la­to­ry scheme could be under­cut unless the intrastate activ­i­ty were reg­u­lat­ed.” 545 U.S. at 24–25.

Although the ESA itself reg­u­lates some eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty, the rule in ques­tion is not nec­es­sary to the statute’s eco­nom­ic scheme. Defen­dants empha­size that the Supreme Court cit­ed the fed­er­al reg­u­la­tion of the take of bald and gold­en eagles as an exam­ple of con­gres­sion­al pow­er that is clear­ly autho­rized by the Com­merce Clause. (FWS’ Mot. for Summ. J. at 21 (cit­ing Raich, 545 U.S. at 26 n.36).) The Court’s bald eagle exam­ple is not sur­pris­ing because it is con­sis­tent with the Court’s rul­ing in Raich. 545 U.S. 1.…

The present case, on the oth­er hand, dif­fers sig­nif­i­cant­ly from Raich in one impor­tant way that makes any appeal to the Nec­es­sary and Prop­er Clause futile: takes of Utah prairie dogs on non-fed­er­al land–even to the point of extinction–would not sub­stan­tial­ly affect the nation­al mar­ket for any com­mod­i­ty reg­u­lat­ed by the ESA. The only evi­dence that sug­gests that the prairie dog’s extinc­tion would sub­stan­tial­ly affect such a nation­al mar­ket is Defen­dants’ asser­tion that gold­en eagles, hawks, and bob­cats are “known to prey on prairie dogs.” (FWS’ Mot. for Summ. J. at 29.) How­ev­er, Defen­dants do not claim that the Utah prairie dog is a major food source for those ani­mals, and those ani­mals are known to prey on many oth­er rodents, birds, and fish. In oth­er words, there is no evi­dence that the diminu­tion of the Utah prairie dog on pri­vate lands in Utah would sig­nif­i­cant­ly alter the sup­ply or qual­i­ty of ani­mals for which a nation­al mar­ket exists. There­fore, con­gres­sion­al pro­tec­tion of the Utah prairie dog is not nec­es­sary to the ESA’s eco­nom­ic scheme.