Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon
515 U.S. 687 (1995)

  • The Department of Interior (DOI) issued a statement that they interpreted the word 'harm' in the Endangered Species Act (ESA), to include habitat modification and degradation.
    • Under ESA §9, private landowners are not allowed to 'take' endangered species.  DOI had originally interpreted this to basically only include hunting, but was now expanding the definition to things like cutting down trees and tilling soil.
  • SHCCGR was a group of landowners dependent on logging and forestry.  They sued DOI, challenging DOI's interpretation of the ESA.
    • In particular, they argued that the definition of 'harm', when applied to endangered owl and woodpecker species had harmed SHCCGR members economically.
  • The Trial Court found for DOI, SHCCGR appealed.
  • The Appellate Court found for SHCCGR.  DOI appealed.
    • The Appellate Court looked to ESA §9, and said that Congress only intended it to apply to things like hunting.
    • "ESA manifests a clear determination by Congress that the prohibition should not reach habitat modification where there is no direct action against any member of the species"
    • "Many farmers modify habitat. They modify by plowing, by tilling, by clearing, and in a thousand other ways. At no point when I have seen a farmer so engaged has it occurred to me that he is taking game. Nor do I think it would occur to anyone else that he is taking wildlife."
  • The US Supreme Court reversed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that habitat modification is a legitimate application of the word "harm."
      • Remember, under the decision in Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council (467 U.S. 837 (1984)), the courts are to give a wide latitude to Administrative Agencies in how they interpret Statutes.
    •  The Court found that the Appellate Court was incorrect in assuming that the words in the definition of "take" only apply to actions involving direct contact with endangered animals.
    • The Court looked to ESA §9(a)(1)(B), and found that the ordinary meaning of harm would in fact include changes in habitat that hurt the endangered animals.
    • The Court found that the intent of ESA was to give broad protection to endangered species, and must include even actions that may have minimal or unforeseeable effects.