The Curious Case of the Prairie Dog that Stopped Barking

Posted on August 31, 2017 by Allan Gates

In 2015 a district court enjoined enforcement of an Endangered Species Act 4(d) rule on the ground the federal government lacked authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate the take of a purely intrastate species, the Utah Prairie Dog, on nonfederal land.  The decision flew in the face of four prior court of appeals decisions in other circuits and attracted substantial commentary, including a blog post by a fellow member of ACOEL. In late March the Tenth Circuit unanimously reversed the district court decision. The Tenth Circuit’s opinion expressly embraced the prior decisions in the Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits that the district court had rejected.

Standing alone, the Tenth Circuit’s decision would be notable only for the fact that it restored Endangered Species Act case law to a more orthodox state of consensus.  But four procedural details add interesting contextual background.

First, the Tenth Circuit took an unusually long time deciding the case.  The court heard oral argument and took the appeal under submission on September 29, 2015.  The court did not issue its decision until March 29, 2017, exactly eighteen months later.  It is not apparent why the Tenth Circuit took so long to issue its opinion, but the length of the wait was definitely a source of nervous contemplation among the parties.

Second, Friends of Animals intervened as a party in the district court and participated vigorously throughout the trial court proceedings and appeal.  At the time the Friends intervened, October of 2013, there was little reason to think the Fish & Wildlife Service would not vigorously defend its authority under the ESA.  By the time the appeal was decided, however, the picture was different.  The Trump administration had taken office, and there was significant doubt about its interest in vigorously defending the scope of Endangered Species Act jurisdiction.  The presence of Friends of Animals as a party, and not merely as an amicus, assured there would be vigorous party opposition to the plaintiff’s petition for rehearing and potentially its petition for certiorari.

Third, after the Tenth Circuit’s opinion was issued and before the deadline for responding to the plaintiff’s petition for rehearing en banc, the Fish & Wildlife Service ordered an internal review of the 4(d) rule in dispute, to be completed in 120 days.  The review is to consider, among other things, the effectiveness of the state’s Utah Prairie Dog Management Plan in protecting the species.  The Service asked the court for a 135 day stay of proceedings to allow completion of the internal review before requiring any other action in the appeal.  The Service argued the internal review could result in changes to the 4(d) rule that might render the plaintiff’s claims moot.  The court denied the Service’s request for stay and subsequently denied the plaintiff’s petition for rehearing en banc.

The Service’s decision to initiate internal review of the 4(d) rule may wind up frustrating both the anti-ESA property rights advocates and the environmental groups.  The Service’s statement that its internal review might moot the plaintiff’s claims will likely be advanced as a reason for denying any petition for certiorari the plaintiff may file.  And the Service’s explicit focus on examining the effectiveness of the state’s Utah Prairie Dog Management Plan may foreshadow an inclination on the part of the new administration to reduce federal protection of the species despite the success in beating back the assault on ESA jurisdiction.