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In Karuk Tribe of California v. United States Forest Service, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 11145, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Forest Service (Service) violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by failing to consult with the appropriate wildlife agencies before approving four notices of intent (NOI). The NOIs gave miners permission to conduct private mining activities, including suction dredging, in the Klamath National Forest. Under Section 7 of the ESA, an agency must consult with wildlife agencies for any “agency action” that “may affect” a listed species or its critical habitat. The court focused on two substantive questions: 1) whether Service’s approval of the NOIs constituted “agency action” within the meaning of Section 7; and 2) whether the approved mining activities “may affect” a listed species or its critical habitat. Answering both in the affirmative, the court remanded the case for entry of judgment in favor of the Karuk Tribe (Tribe).

Before considering the substantive questions, the court addressed the Service’s argument that, due to the statewide moratorium on suction dredge mining, the case was moot. However, the court explained that the moratorium did not prohibit other mining activities at issue in this case, and the moratorium was only temporary. Also, the court found that even though the NOIs the Tribe challenged had already expired, the case could still be heard under the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception to the mootness doctrine. Since the Tribe could not feasibly complete litigation before the NOIs expire, and since there is a reasonable expectation that the Service will engage in the challenged conduct again in the future, the court decided to hear the case and rule on its merits.

Turning to the first issue of “agency action,” the court explained that an agency must consult under Section 7 if two criteria are met. First, the agency must make an affirmative authorization. In past cases, the court found that the Service’s approval of an NOI was not merely advisory but rather a final agency action that “marks the consummation of the agency’s decision making process.” Hells Canyon Pres. Council v. U.S. Forest Serv., 595 F.3d 923, 930 (9th Cir. 2010). Based on that case law, along with the Service’s mining regulations and actions, the court determined that the Service had affirmatively authorized the private mining activities to proceed when it approved the four NOIs.

Second, the action must have “discretionary federal involvement or control.” Karuk Tribe of Cal., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 11145 at 42. The Service’s actions meet that criterion if the Service could influence a private activity to help a listed species. The court found three ways in which the Service exercised discretion in deciding whether to approve the NOIs: 1) by formulating criteria to protect the Coho salmon; 2) by refusing to approve a NOI because it had insufficient protection of the salmon habitat; 3) by applying different criteria for different areas of the Klamath National Forest. These three examples, along with established case law, supported the court’s finding that the Service’s actions of approving the four NOIs constituted an affirmative, discretionary decision to allow private mining activities to proceed. The Service therefore had a duty to discuss matters with the appropriate wildlife agencies.

The court next found that the approved mining activities “may affect” a listed species and its critical habitat. The court first looked at the record and found ample evidence that the mining activities, especially suction dredge mining, “may affect” Coho salmon. Along with the record, the court explained that by definition, mining activities that require a NOI “might cause” disturbance of surface resources, thus they “may affect” the environment and listed species. The court concluded that because the mining activities clearly “may affect” a listed species and its critical habitat, and because the Service’s actions constituted “agency action,” the Service had a duty to consult under Section 7 before approving the four NOIs. The Service’s failure to do so constituted a violation of the ESA.

Key Point:

This case confirms that, before an agency can conduct an “agency action” that “may affect” a listed species or its critical habitat, it must consult with the appropriate wildlife agencies. Agencies that make an affirmative authorization while retaining discretionary control and also have the capacity to benefit listed species must discuss matters further with expert wildlife agencies.

Written By: Tina Thomas, Ashle Crocker and Holly McMannes (law clerk)___________
For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

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