Whether 1,500 acres of St. Tammany Parish woodlands will be preserved as habitat for the dusky gopher frog or used to harvest timber will hinge on the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court on Monday granted a request by a timber company to hear an appeal of a ruling that landowner-rights groups say effectively took the 1,500 acres out of commerce to protect the endangered species' future, despite the fact that no frogs live there and none have for a half-century.
The Supreme Court hearing will cap a six-year saga that began when a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist informed Edward Poitevent, who owns the land, that the tract in eastern St. Tammany was being considered for designation as critical habitat for the amphibian.
That designation was eventually enacted, and Poitevent, along with Weyerhaeuser Co., a timber company, sued the government, arguing that the designation infringed on their property rights and was costing them millions of dollars, especially since dusky gopher frogs are now found only in one county in Mississippi.
Environmental groups and the government, on the other hand, argued that the power to designate the land as critical habitat was granted by the Endangered Species Act. They also said the action didn't take the land out of commerce but just required the owners and developers to have a conservation plan for it.
Two lower courts agreed with the government. The case has drawn broad interest from around the country, with 18 states and several other groups filing briefs with the court, urging it to hear or reject the case.
Monday's announcement of the court's decision was celebrated by the plaintiffs and greeted with surprise by the environmental groups who joined in the case on the side of the government.
"I was always hopeful," Poitevent said. "My thought is that they don't take cases like this to rubber stamp the lower court. But is it a guarantee? No, it's not."
Cynthia Sartou, of the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group that has joined the suit on the side of the government, said she did not expect the court to take the case.
"We were kind of shocked," she said. "We don't know what this means, or why the Supreme Court has taken this up. We thought this was pretty settled law."
Collette Adkins, of the Center for Biological Diversity, another party to the suit, said she was confident that the high court will uphold the lower courts' rulings.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service followed the unanimous advice of frog experts in deciding to protect essential habitat of these critically endangered animals," she said.
Oliver Houck, a law professor at Tulane, said the Supreme Court's move was not too unexpected.
"It only takes four" justices to agree to hear a case, he said. "There are four pretty firm votes," he added, referring to the court's conservative faction of Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch. It will take at least five votes to overturn the earlier decisions, however.
It's unclear when the court will hear the case. Poitevent said that attorneys with the Pacific Legal Foundation believe it may be heard in October.
The case has become a focal point of the conflict between supporters of landowners' rights and environmentalists.
Attorneys for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit, argued that the government's designation represented federal overreach. Dusky gopher frogs, tiny amphibians that spend most of their lives underground, haven't been seen on that land since at least 1965, they argued.
Those in favor of the designation concede that no frogs live there now, but they say that if the species is to make a comeback, the land in St. Tammany would be a critical habitat due to the presence of five "ephemeral ponds, each within hopping distance of the next," according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Such ponds are necessary for the frogs to breed.
Advocate staff writer Sara Pagones contributed to this report.