Victory in the Colorado River cutthroat trout case explained

October 17, 2012 | By BRIAN HODGES

A few weeks ago, we mentioned that the United States District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the federal government’s decision not to list the Colorado River cutthroat trout as an endangered or threatened species.  At the time, however, the court had not issued an opinion explaining its ruling.  We received that opinion yesterday.

Before discussing the court’s opinion, let’s recap the issue that PLF addressed in the litigation.  The case, which was brought by the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, asked whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must consider historic habitat when determining whether to list a species under the Endangered Species Act.  Areas of historic habitat are places where a species once occurred, but can no longer be found.  The plaintiffs argued that the Service should have considered whether the trout was in danger of extinction in its historic habitat before determining that the trout did not warrant listing.

Our amicus brief took issue with the environmental plaintiffs’ “range” argument.

We made four points.  Interpreting “range” to include historic habitat:

(1) is inconsistent with the ordinary meaning of the word “range,” which encompasses only those places currently inhabited by a species;

(2) would lead to absurd results and make the ESA impossible to administer because it would require the government to analyze the risk of species extinction where a species no longer exists;

(3) ignores the unambiguous intent of Congress by erroneously resulting in listing of species that are in no danger of extinction merely because they no longer inhabit all of their historic habitat; and

(4) is incompatible with the five-factor analysis required by the ESA, which speaks only of “present or threatened” curtailment of habitat, not past habitat modification.

Additionally, we argued that even in cases where courts have required an evaluation of historic habitat, no court has held that a species must necessarily be listed due to a reduction in historic habitat.

In the case of the trout, the Service addressed the species’ historical distribution in its finding, but also explained why the reduction in historic habitat did not warrant listing the trout.

Yesterday’s opinion from the district court lines up well with the arguments we made as amicus.  The court upheld the Service’s finding that the trout does not warrant listing.  It did not reject the Service’s approach of defining “range” as including only current habitat.  And the court held that the Service adequately explained why the historic contraction of the trout’s range did not render the trout vulnerable in any significant portion of its currently occupied habitat.