The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday vacated a lower court's ruling that 1,500 acres of land in St. Tammany Parish can be designated as critical habitat for an endangered frog that hasn't lived in Louisiana for decades.
The 8-0 ruling, in a case which was closely followed by environmental groups as well as advocates for private property rights, leaves in place protections for dusky gopher frogs in their current habitat in Mississippi.
It also kept in place the federal government's right to designate privately owned land as "critical habitats" and to impose the land-use restrictions that designation often entails.
But in what plaintiffs called a victory for property rights, the court ordered the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to re-examine its definition of "habitat," a word that was at the core of the long-running suit as landowners argued that federal regulators went too far in restricting property rights in an area where the frogs don't even live.
"Critical habitat," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the ruling, can't be designated as such "unless it is also habitat for the species." The 5th Circuit, he said, did not take up that question when it considered the case.
"I'm ecstatic. This is a great decision for my family," said landowner Edward Poitevent, adding that he was surprised by the unanimous decision. Many observers had expected the court to divide along liberal-conservative lines.
There are fewer than 100 dusky gopher frogs left in the wild, and all are in Mississippi. But the land in St. Tammany Parish does have seasonal ponds, a necessary feature for the frogs to breed.
Partly because of those ponds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 designated the land along La. 36 in St. Tammany as critical habitat, despite the fact that the frogs require a different type of forest than now exists on the land.
The designation sparked a lawsuit from the landowners and the giant timber company Weyerhaeuser Co., who argued that it was an example of government overreach and could cost them millions of dollars in profits they could earn by developing the land.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity argued that the designation of such land was well within the mandates of the Endangered Species Act, and that the designation did not prevent the owners from developing the land. It just required that they present a conservation plan for the frog.
Lower courts ruled that the decision was within the discretion of federal officials and therefore not subject to judicial review.
Once the suit reached the Supreme Court, interested parties on both sides of the debate jumped in. Property-rights advocates, a coalition of 18 state attorneys general and places like San Juan County, Utah, which has a similar situation with a species of bird, sided with the plaintiffs. Environmental groups and some legal think tanks agreed with the government's position.
Tuesday's ruling was trumpeted by the plaintiffs as a victory, but it wasn't quite the full-throated rejection of the government's power that some had hoped.
Collette Adkins, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said she was disappointed but plans to continue fighting.
“The opinion is quite narrow and leaves all the work to be done” by the lower court, Adkins said. “The dusky gopher frog’s habitat protections remain in place for now, and we’re hopeful the 5th Circuit will recognize the importance of protecting and restoring habitats for endangered wildlife to live.”
The Endangered Species Act allows for unoccupied land to be designated as habitat, and the St. Tammany tract is "ideal breeding habitat" for the dusky gopher frog, Atkins said.
She said the Center for Biological Diversity will continue to fight to have the land designated as critical habitat for the frogs.
Because the case was sent back to the 5th Circuit, both sides will likely have an opportunity to submit new briefs addressing the issues raised by the high court's ruling.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who had not been confirmed when the court heard oral arguments on the case, did not participate in the decision.