Will Supreme Court Deprive Endangered Animals of Habitat Protections?

Fate of dusky gopher frog could be indicator

Dusky gopher frog. (Credit: USFWS)

The Supreme Court is about to decide the future of the dusky gopher frog. But with the case now before the court, there is far more at stake than the survival of this small, rare amphibian.

How the court rules could forever affect the way the Endangered Species Act can be used to protect America’s most imperiled plants and animals and the places they live.

As a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, a defendant on this case, and as someone that cares about life on Earth, this is deeply troubling. This ruling and the precedent it sets could mean the difference between recovery and extinction for many species, including the dusky gopher frog.

Experts have been clear: Habitat needs to be protected if the frog is going to survive. And they certainly have the facts on their side.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can protect the places where species live as well as areas important for their future recovery. Using these safeguards and the best available science, the service moved to protect habitat for the dusky gopher frog in 2012.

There are only about 100 of the frogs left in the wild. Their habitats have been bulldozed for urban developments, paved over for highway construction, sprayed with pesticides and threatened by droughts and fire suppression. The frogs were once prevalent in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, but more than 98 percent of the pine forests they depend on have been destroyed.

The service’s habitat protections covered ponds in Louisiana where the frogs once lived. These lands are essential because they contain five ephemeral ponds, each within hopping distance of the next. Wildlife scientists determined that these ponds could be an ideal place to set up a new breeding population.

But Weyerhaeuser, the world’s largest timber company, didn’t agree with the decision to protect critical habitat for dusky gopher frogs in Louisiana — mostly because the company is concerned the protections will hurt its bottom line.

A federal appeals court sided with the Fish and Wildlife Service scientists that determined these areas were essential for dusky gopher frogs. It also found that the proposed habitat protections would impose minimal restrictions on landowners.

In fact, the Service estimated that owners of the lands would not experience economic impacts if they continued to use the land for timber production — a possibility with the protections in place.

But that wasn’t enough for the timber giant. At the request of the company, the Supreme Court is now reconsidering the appellate court decision.

An adverse decision would limit the ability of the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect lands needed for habitat restoration and wildlife reintroduction. It would be terrible news for hundreds of species awaiting habitat protections.

But this case also has a bright side. It offers the Supreme Court a chance to send a clear signal about the need to protect our natural heritage. If the frogs prevail, we will know that our highest court truly understands the need to safeguard the wild places that imperiled plants and animals need to survive and flourish.

Collette Adkins is a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species program.