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
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
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.