Monday, July 21, 2008

Defenders of Wildlife v. Gutierrez (Commerce Dept.)

Jul 18: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, Case No. 07-5278. This case concerns the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) (right whale) and the role of National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Coast Guard in the Federal government’s efforts to protect the species from extinction. Appellants, composed of several environmental groups and one whale researcher, challenged NMFS’s denial of a petition for emergency rulemaking and the Coast Guard’s failure to consider the impact of some of its actions on the right whale. The district court granted summary judgment to the agencies. The Appeals Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the agencies on the challenge to the petition denial but reversed its summary judgment order relating to the Coast Guard’s actions. The case is remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

Appellants challenge the Coast Guard’s actions regarding a "traffic separation scheme process" as violations of ESA sections 7(a)(1), 7(a)(2), and 9. 16 U.S.C. §§ 1536(a)(1), (a)(2), 1538. The district court dismissed this challenge, concluding that the International Maritime Organization, a multinational body, adopted the traffic separation schemes at issue, not the Coast Guard. The parties dispute whether “agency action” or “final agency action” is required in order to bring suit under the citizen-suit provision of the ESA, 16 U.S.C. § 1540(g), based on a violation of ESA section 7(a)(2)’s consultation requirement. Appellants extract a simple “agency action” requirement from the text of ESA section 7(a)(2), which speaks only to “agency action.” Appellees argue that the “final agency action” requirement in the second clause of the Administrative Procedure Act should be read into ESA section 7(a)(2). See 5 U.S.C. § 704. The Appeals Court said, "We find it unnecessary to resolve this issue because we hold that appellants are challenging final agency action by the Coast Guard.

The Appeals Court says that the record shows "quite a different role for the Coast Guard in this process. Most significantly, the Coast Guard is the sole body charged with the duty of promulgating traffic separation schemes. . . traffic separation schemes would normally have recourse under the citizen-suit provision of the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1540(g), or the Administrative Procedure Act. But if the Coast Guard delegates its responsibility for traffic separation schemes to the International Maritime Organization, and if we accept this delegation as relieving the Coast Guard of any responsibility for them, no such recourse is available."

The Appeals Court rules, ". . . appellants have presented evidence of final agency action in this case. . . Accordingly, appellants have demonstrated final agency action, and the district court erred in granting summary judgment to appellees based on its conclusion that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction."

Groups involved in the lawsuit said it was a major decision in the ongoing battle to save the world's last remaining North Atlantic right whales. The groups included Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, Ocean Conservancy and other whale advocates. They said the Court ordered the Coast Guard to review the impact of shipping traffic lanes on endangered whales which they say is a crucial step towards altering shipping lanes to stop ship strikes in critically endangered right whale habitat.

Robert Dreher, vice president of conservation law for Defenders of Wildlife said, “We applaud the court’s decision. Ship collisions are the greatest threat to the survival of the right whale, so ensuring that the Coast Guard protects the whale in setting shipping lanes is a great conservation victory.” They said ship strikes are the leading cause of injuries and mortalities to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Vessel strikes are known to kill or injure a minimum of three whales each year on the East Coast, and a number of ship strikes are believed to go unreported. Only about 350 North Atlantic right whales remain in existence.

Access the Appeals Court ruling (
click here). Access a release from Defenders with links to additional information (click here).