Supreme Court Hops Into Case About a Frog and Property Rights

But the justices will leave bearded seals alone

The dusky gopher frog has emerged as a touchstone for environmentalists and business groups feuding over property rights and government power. (Courtesy The Wildlife Society)

The Supreme Court jumped into a case about the government’s power to designate private land as critical habitat for an endangered frog species, but is staying out of another case seeking to protect the bearded seal from future threats of climate change. 

The justices announced Monday they will hear oral arguments about the dusky gopher frog and a 1,500-acre tract of Louisiana forestry land that could lose $34 million in development value because of the Fish and Wildlife Service designation under the 1973 endangered species law. The arguments will likely be scheduled for the next Supreme Court term that starts in October.

The challenge comes from Weyerhaeuser Co., which owns the Louisiana timberland and argues the law allows the critical habitat designation only if the areas are “essential for the conservation of the species.” The company says this land doesn’t fit that description.

The dusky gopher frog used to be found in Louisiana and Alabama, according to Fish and Wildlife, but is now found only in some parts of Mississippi. The government argues in its filing that the Louisiana land contains rare ephemeral ponds associated with the frog’s breeding habitat.

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The case, touching on property rights and government power, is closely watched by environmentalists, business groups and 18 states, which filed a brief to urge the court to hear the case and rein in overly broad critical habitat determinations that cost jobs and tax revenue.

House Republicans last year moved to overhaul parts of the Endangered Species Act, a statute that lawmakers from both parties agree needs updating.

Separately, the Supreme Court announced Monday it won’t hear Alaska’s challenge to the Commerce secretary’s 2012 decision to add the Beringia population of the Pacific bearded seal to the list of threatened species because of global warming and “projected changes in sea ice habitat.”

And the justices ruled unanimously that challenges to EPA decisions on “waters of the United States,” often called WOTUS, must be filed in federal district courts. The decision means a slower path through the court system for land owners.

The frog case is Weyerhaeuser Company v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Docket No. 17-71.

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