The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge
Plaintiffs -- organizations and individuals that support sustainable hunting of the Canadian wood bison -- have brought suit alleging that the Secretary of the Department of the Interior has violated several provisions of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 ("ESA" or "the Act"), 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq., in his treatment of that species. The Canadian wood bison is currently listed as "endangered" under the Act. In 2007, the Canadian National Wood Bison Recovery Team petitioned to "downlist" the wood bison to "threatened," but the Secretary has not yet made a final determination on the petition. Plaintiffs contend that the Secretary's failure to act on the petition violates the ESA. Several individual plaintiffs also challenge as unlawful the Secretary's failure to process their applications to import wood bison hunting trophies. For the reasons explained below, the Court will grant defendants' motion to dismiss, and will deny plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment.
I. Statutory and Regulatory Background
The ESA is "the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species ever enacted by any nation." Tenn. Valley Auth. v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 180 (1978). It is intended to "provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, [and] to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species." 16 U.S.C. § 1531(b). To this end, the Act directs the Secretary to classify species whose survival is in danger as "endangered" or "threatened." See 16 U.S.C. § 1533.*fn1
Individuals may petition the Secretary to list, downlist, or delist species. See id. § 1533(b)(3). After receiving any such petition, the Secretary must, "[t]o the maximum extent practicable," make a finding within 90 days "as to whether the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted" ("90-day finding"). 16 U.S.C. § 1533(b)(3)(A). And "[w]ithin 12 months after receiving a petition that is found . . . to present substantial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted," the Secretary must determine whether the petitioned action is warranted, is not warranted, or is warranted but is precluded by pending proposals concerning other species ("12-month finding"). Id. § 1533(b)(3)(B).
The ESA also generally prohibits the importation of endangered and threatened species, including hunting trophies. See id. § 1538(a)(1)(A), (c)(2); 50 C.F.R. §§ 17.21(b), 17.32. Certain species may be imported under limited circumstances, however -- such as "for scientific purposes or to enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species." 16 U.S.C. § 1539(a)(1)(A). Individuals seeking to import a listed species must apply for a permit and satisfy a number of application requirements. See id. § 1539(a); 50 C.F.R. §§ 17.22, 17.31(a).
The Canadian wood bison, found in portions of northwestern Canada, was by the late 1800s hunted nearly to extinction. See 74 Fed. Reg. 5908, 5909 (Feb. 3, 2009). It was first classified as an "endangered" species in 1970 under the statutory predecessor to the ESA, and has remained so listed under the ESA. Id.
Between 2000 and 2004, the four individual plaintiffs to this action purchased wood bison hunts in Canada, which permits limited hunting of the wood bison, and each then successfully hunted a wood bison. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 15-18. With Conservation Force's assistance, they each applied to import their wood bison trophies into the United States. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 15-18. The Secretary had not processed these import permit applications by the time this action was filed.
In November 2007, the Canadian National Wood Bison Recovery Team ("the Team") petitioned the Secretary to downlist the wood bison from endangered to threatened.*fn2 The Team's petition stated that the wood bison's "populations are healthy," its "habitat remains plentiful," and conservation "recovery and management plans are being implemented." Id. at 5909-10. In February 2009, the Secretary, acting through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service ("the Service"), issued a 90-day finding. This finding concluded that the Team's downlisting petition "presents substantial scientific evidence and commercial information indicating that reclassifying the wood bison from endangered to threatened may be warranted." Id. at 5910. The Secretary has not yet issued his 12-month finding on the petition.
Plaintiffs brought this action in March 2009, a month after the Secretary issued his 90-day finding. They contend that the Secretary's failure to issue a 12-month finding on the Team's downlisting petition violates the ESA. Am. Compl. at pp. 19-20, 25-28. The individual plaintiffs also claim that the Secretary's then-failure to process their applications to import wood bison hunting trophies violates both the ESA and their Due Process rights. Am. Compl. at pp. 21-24.
Plaintiffs moved for summary judgment before defendants responded to their amended complaint. Three days after plaintiffs filed their motion, the Service denied the individual plaintiffs' applications for import permits. See Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss ("Defs.' Mot.") [Docket Entry 11], Ex. 1 (permit denials). As to each application, the Service concluded that "there is insufficient evidence to support the concept that this import of a sport-hunted trophy would provide a 'conservation' benefit to the wood bison." Id. at 1. Defendants ...