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Babbit v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff contends that the Secretary of the Interior does not have the requisite authority to define “harm” under the Endangered Species Act. Further, the way the Secretary has defined harm has caused Plaintiff economic injury. Plaintiff appealed the district court’s order granting summary judgment, and the court of appeals reversed the district court’s order. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Under the Endangered Species Act, the Secretary of the Interior has the authority to define the term “harm” in a broad manner, encompassing direct injury or death to endangered animals, including indirect actions such as the destruction of a specifies’ habitat and breading grounds.

    Facts.

    Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon, Plaintiff, an entity that represents families dependent on forest products industry, small landowners, logging companies, and others, brought suit against Bruce Babbitt. Babbitt, in his official capacity as the Secretary of the Interior, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and others (collectively known as “Defendants”) contest the interpretation of the term “harm” in the Endangered Species Act. Plaintiff asserts that the term “harm” applies to red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species, and the northern spotted owl, a threatened species. Further, Plaintiff claims that those species have injured Plaintiff economically because they could not organize lodging activities where the animals were located.  The district court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the Secretary possessed the requisite authority to define the term “harm” as he pleased. The court of appeals reversed the district court’s holding, and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

    Issue.

    Whether the Secretary of Interior has the requisite authority, under the Endangered Species Act, to define the term “harm” in a broad manner, encompassing direct injury or death to endangered animals, including indirect actions such as the destruction of a specifies’ habitat and breading grounds.

    Held.

    Yes, the Secretary of Interior has the requisite authority, under the Endangered Species Act, to define the term “harm” in a broad manner, encompassing direct injury or death to endangered animals, including indirect actions such as the destruction of a specifies’ habitat and breading grounds.

    Dissent.

    The definition of the term “harm” should apply to populations of protected species, as well as individual animals.

    Concurrence.

    The authority to define the term “harm” must apply solely to actions that actually cause death or injury to animals through foreseeable actions, not merely speculative actions.

    Discussion.

    Under the Endangered Species Act, one may not “take” an endangered or threatened species. Further, to “take” has been defined as “to harm.” Additionally, “to harm” has been defined as an act, which actually results in the death or injury of wildlife, comprising of significant habitat alteration or deprivation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly damaging behaviors such as breading or feeding. 50 C.F.R. § 17.3 (1994). Here, Plaintiff contests that the Secretary may only seek recourse for species that are harmed is to purchase the land where the species that are affected live. In turn, Defendants assert that the Endangered Species Act places a duty on Plaintiffs to avoid conducting activities that may result in harm to those endangered or threatened species, such as lodging. Because the lodging activities that Plaintiff is involved in destroys the habitat and breeding grounds of the woodpecker, causing them “harm”, Defendant’s interpretation is consistent with Congress’ purpose to protect endangered and threatened species. Therefore, the court of appeals holding is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this United State Supreme Court’s opinion. 


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