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California Cattlemen's Association v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 27, 2019

UNITED STATES FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE, et al., Defendants, and CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY, et al. Defendant-Intervenors.


          TREVOR N. MCFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

         The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) designated over 1.8 million acres in California as critical habitat for three amphibian species. The California Cattlemen's Association, the California Wool Growers Association, and the California Farm Bureau Federation (collectively, the “Cattlemen”) now challenge this designation. They argue that the FWS did not evaluate the effects of the critical habitat designation on “small entities, ” as required by the Regulatory Flexibility Act, 5 U.S.C. § 601, et seq. But because the groups lack standing to sue, the Court will dismiss their Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.


         The Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and the mountain yellow-legged frog live in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. 79 Fed.Reg. 24, 256, 24, 258-59 (April 29, 2014) (“Listing Regulation”). The color on their upper bodies varies, but they are known for their yellow bellies and hind legs. Id. at 24, 259. These small frogs inhabit lakes, ponds, marshes, meadows, and streams high in the Sierra Nevadas. Id. at 24, 259-60. These highly aquatic species rarely hop more than a meter from water. Id. at 24, 259.

         Yosemite toads also inhabit the upper elevations of the Sierra Nevadas. Id. at 24, 286. They are “[r]obust and stocky with dry, uniformly warty skin.”[1] These toads live near wet meadows because of their breeding habits, and adults typically stay near water. Id. at 24, 285. They can, however, range more than half-a-mile from their breeding meadows-by walking, not hopping. Id.

         In 2013, the FWS proposed to designate land in California as critical habitat for these amphibians under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”), 16 U.S.C. § 1531, et seq. 78 Fed.Reg. 24, 516 (proposed Apr. 25, 2013) (“Proposed Rule”). Under the Regulatory Flexibility Act (“RFA”), 5 U.S.C. § 601, et seq., whenever an agency publishes a general notice of proposed rulemaking, it typically must also prepare an initial regulatory flexibility analysis. 5 U.S.C. § 603(a). The regulatory flexibility analysis must describe the effect of the proposed rule on small entities.[2] Id. The FWS, however, certified that the proposed rule would not significantly impact a substantial number of small entities. Proposed Rule, 78 Fed.Reg. at 24, 543. So a regulatory flexibility analysis was unnecessary under 5 U.S.C. § 605(b).

         A year later, the FWS listed the two frog species as “endangered” and the Yosemite toad as “threatened” under the ESA. Listing Regulation, 79 Fed. Reg. at 24, 256. After the FWS listed the species, the U.S. Forest Service recognized that some activities it authorizes, including livestock grazing, may affect the newly-listed species. ESA Section 7 requires federal agencies to ensure that their actions neither “jeopardize the continued existence” of any listed species nor “result in the destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat. 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a)(2). So the Forest Service requested a consultation with the FWS to determine whether forest programs would jeopardize the species, and after the consultation the FWS issued a biological opinion explaining their findings. See 2014 BiOp, ECF No. 52-2.

         The agencies concluded that with appropriate conservation measures the Forest Service's programs would not jeopardize the amphibians. Id. at 66. The Forest Service applied the “standards and guidelines” (“S&Gs”) and “best management practices” from the 2004 Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment (“2004 SNFPA”). See Id. at 2, 15. The agency implemented some S&Gs specifically for the Rangeland Management Program. Id. at 25-28. For example, “[l]ivestock utilization of grass and grass-like plants [was] limited to . . . 40 percent in late seral stage meadows to minimize the impact of livestock grazing.” Id. at 25 (derived from S&G 120).

         In 2016, the FWS issued the Final Rule designating critical habitat for the amphibians. See 81 Fed. Reg. 59, 046 (Aug. 26, 2016) (“Final Rule”). The FWS designated as critical habitat land that the three species already occupied and that contained the physical and biological features essential to conservation. Id. at 59, 066. The FWS designated no areas as critical habitat outside the geographical area occupied by the species because it determined that “occupied areas are sufficient for the [species'] conservation.” Id.

         The FWS again certified that a regulatory flexibility analysis was unnecessary, because the “final critical habitat designation w[ould] not have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities.” See Id. at 59, 088. The FWS reasoned that Section 7 consultations, the regulatory means for effectuating critical habitat designations, require only that federal agencies ensure that any proposed agency action is unlikely to jeopardize a species or adversely impact critical habitat. See Final Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. at 59, 088. But federal agencies are not “small entities.” Id. So FWS concluded that “no small entities are directly regulated by this rulemaking.” Id.

         In June 2017, the Forest Service reinitiated consultation with the FWS to analyze the effects of forest programs on the newly-designated critical habitat. See Three Amphibians BO, ECF No. 52-4. And the FWS ultimately concluded that the forest programs, as proposed, were unlikely to jeopardize the species or adversely modify critical habitat. Id. at 58. The Three Amphibian BO adopted the same S&Gs from the 2004 SNFPA that were incorporated in the 2014 BiOp. Compare Id. at 2, 14 with 2014 BiOp at 2, 15.

         The Cattlemen sued, alleging that the FWS's 2016 failure to conduct a regulatory flexibility analysis violated the RFA and the Administrative Procedure Act. See Compl. ¶¶ 45- 50, ECF No. 1. They challenge the FWS's assertion that designating critical habitat regulates only federal agencies, not small entities. Id. ¶ 46. Section 7 consultations, they argue, can cause restrictions on grazing permits and other hardships. So the RFA required the FWS to conduct a regulatory flexibility analysis, because such consultations ultimately impact “small entities, ” like farmers, ranchers, and landowners. They ask for declaratory and injunctive relief. See Compl. at 13-14.

         The Defendants sought dismissal of the Cattlemen's claims, arguing that the Cattlemen lack standing, their claims are not ripe for review, and they are not within the zone of interests protected by the RFA. See Gov't Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 11; Def.-Int. Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 36. The Court denied these motions, with one exception. See Cal. Cattlemen's Ass'n v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., 315 F.Supp.3d 282 (D.D.C. 2018) (“To the extent that the Plaintiffs invoke the RFA alone to test compliance with Section 603, that claim must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.”).

         The parties have now filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The Cattlemen maintain that the FWS's failure to conduct a regulatory flexibility analysis violates the RFA and continue to seek declaratory and injunctive relief. See Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 13-25, ECF No. 49-1. And the Defendants again claim that the Cattlemen lack standing to sue. See Gov't Cross-Mot Summ. J (“Gov't Mot.”) at 14-28, ECF No. 51-1; Def.-Int. Cross Mot. Summ. J. (“Def.-Int. Mot.”) at 11-18, ECF No. 52-1. Alternatively, the Defendants argue that the FWS reasonably determined that no regulatory flexibility analysis was required. See Gov't Mot. at 28-38; Def.-Int. Mot. at 18-22. And in any event, they argue that any relief should be more tailored than the relief the Cattlemen request. See Gov't Mot. at 38-44; Def.-Int. Mot. at 22-25.


         “[T]he ‘irreducible constitutional minimum' of standing consists of three elements.” Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016) (quoting Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992)). “The plaintiff must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.” Id. And “[t]he party invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing these elements.” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561.

         Organizations may establish associational standing to sue on their members' behalf. See Sierra Club v. FERC, 827 F.3d 59, 65 (D.C. Cir. 2016). “An organization has associational standing to bring suit on its members' behalf when: (1) at least one of its members would have standing to sue in his or her own right; (2) ‘the interests it seeks to protect are germane to the organization's purpose'; and (3) ‘neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit.'” Id. (quoting WildEarth Guardians v. Jewell, 738 F.3d 298, 305 (D.C. Cir. 2013)).

         A plaintiff must establish standing at the outset of each phase of litigation. Scenic Am., Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Trans., 836 F.3d 42, 48 (D.C. Cir. 2016). “[A] court's determination that a plaintiff has established standing at the motion to dismiss stage by alleging sufficient facts in her pleadings is only the first step, because that finding does not obviate the court's responsibility to ensure that the plaintiff can actually prove those allegations when one or both parties seek summary judgment.” Id. (emphasis in original). So “[a] plaintiff's burden to demonstrate standing grows heavier at each stage of the litigation.” Osborn v. Visa Inc., 797 F.3d 1057, 1063 (D.C. Cir. 2015). At the summary judgment stage, “[i]f . . . the court determines that the plaintiff has not introduced sufficient evidence into the record to at least raise a disputed issue of fact as to each element of standing, the court has no power to proceed and must dismiss the case.” Scenic Am., Inc., 836 F.3d at 48-49.[3]

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Cattlemen have failed to establish standing. They must “show a ‘substantial probability' that [they] ha[ve] been injured, that the defendant caused [their] injury, and that the court [can] redress that injury.” Sierra Club v. EPA, 292 F.3d 895, 899 ...

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