Home » Case Summaries » 2015 » WildEarth Guardians v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 795 F.3d 1148 (9th Cir. 2015)

 
 

WildEarth Guardians v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 795 F.3d 1148 (9th Cir. 2015)

 

In this case, WildEarth Guardians (WildEarth) sued the Department of Agriculture to enjoin the government from participating in efforts to kill predatory animals in Nevada. WildEarth argued that the government violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)[1] when it relied on an outdated Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) to analyze the environmental impacts of predator management efforts.

WildEarth’s claims arose from the actions of the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which exists in part to carry out wildlife control programs in cooperation with other federal and state agencies. APHIS and the Nevada Department of Wildlife jointly form the Nevada Wildlife Services Program (NWSP), which controls predatory animals in Nevada. In 1994, APHIS prepared a PEIS to evaluate the environmental impacts of its wildlife programs nationwide. APHIS revised the PEIS in 1997. The PEIS discussed various wildlife management alternatives and singled out a “preferred alternative,” although the PEIS made clear that regional and local decision makers would play a role in selecting among viable alternatives. In 2011, APHIS prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA) evaluating NWSP’s efforts. The EA incorporated the 1994/1997 PEIS by reference. The EA concluded that NWSP’s efforts would have no significant environmental impacts. Based on this Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), APHIS concluded that a Nevada-specific environmental impact statement (EIS) was unnecessary.

WildEarth sued APHIS in 2012, seeking both injunctive and declaratory relief. WildEarth argued that APHIS violated NEPA because: 1) APHIS acted arbitrarily and capriciously by incorporating the 1994/1997 PEIS into the EA without first supplementing and updating the PEIS,2) APHIS unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed preparation of an updated PEIS,3) the 2011 Nevada EA was inadequate due to its incorporation of the outdated PEIS, and 4) the 2011 Nevada FONSI was arbitrary and capricious because it was based on an inadequate EA.The district court found that WildEarth lacked standing for its first two claims becauseWildEarth failed to adequately allege a concrete injury caused by APHIS’s reliance on the PEIS. The district court rejected WildEarth’s third and fourth claims for lack of standing as well, finding that the alleged injuries would not be redressed by a favorable outcome for WildEarth because Nevada could adopt a state plan that caused similar harm. The Ninth Circuit, finding the district court’s reasoning erroneous, held that WildEarth had standing on each of its four claims, and reversed and remanded.

The Ninth Circuit first explained that, to establish standing, a plaintiff must show that 1) he or she has suffered a concrete and particularized injury-in-fact, 2) the injury can be traced to the challenged conduct, and 3) a favorable court decision will likely redress the injury. The court then explained that the causation and redressability elements of standing are relaxed when plaintiffs seek to enforce procedural requirements, as in this case. Under those relaxed standards, WildEarth had standing to bring its claims challenging the sufficiency of the PEIS. The court first determined that WildEarth had associational standing because it was an organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and had a member, Bob Molde, with a clear interest in the aesthetic and recreational enjoyment of predators in the Nevada wilderness, which related, in turn, to WildEarth’s organizational purpose of “protecting and restoring wildlife” and “carnivore protection.”[2] The court then found that WildEarth showed that Molde would suffer a concrete injury-in-fact because APHIS’s reliance on the outdated PEIS allowed for more aggressive efforts to kill predators, which in turn harmed Molde’s interest in observing predators in the wild.[3] The Ninth Circuit next found that WildEarth established the causation prong of standing because Molde’s injury was caused, at least in part, by APHIS and its reliance on the outdated PEIS in approving NWSP’s predator control efforts. Finally, the court found that WildEarth established the redressability prong of standing because a favorable outcome on these claims had the potential to influence APHIS in a manner that would reduce Molde’s injury. As a result, the court held that Molde, and therefore WildEarth, had standing to challenge APHIS’s reliance on the outdated PEIS.

The Ninth Circuit next held that Wildearth had standing to bring its third and fourth, Nevada-specific claims. At trial, WildEarth argued that APHIS violated NEPA by 1) preparing an EA that failed to adequately examine the environmental impacts of several of NWSP’s predator control activities, and 2) failing to prepare a Nevada-specific EIS. These violations, in turn, threatened Molde’s interest in observing predators in the Nevada wilderness. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit held that WildEarth had adequately alleged both injury-and-fact and causation. The Ninth Circuit then turned to the question of redressability. APHIS argued that a favorable outcome for WildEarth would not redress Molde’s alleged injury because, even though an injunction would end APHIS’s involvement in the NWSP, Nevada could continue its predator control efforts with or without federal participation. The Ninth Circuit explained that the presence of multiple causes of injury does not, on its own, defeat redressability, especially in cases of procedural injury. The court clarified that under the relaxed redressability standard applied in procedural injury cases, plaintiffs can demonstrate redressability so long as a defendant is partially causing the alleged injury and a favorable decision for the plaintiff could somewhat reduce the injury.[4] Based on that standard, the Ninth Circuit held that a favorable outcome in this case would sufficiently redress Molde’s alleged injury because it would curtail federal involvement in the injurious program, and that WildEarth therefore successfully established the redressability prong of standing. The Ninth Circuit explained that redressability appeared more likely in this case because Nevada currently did not have its own predator management program, and it was purely speculative whether Nevada would unilaterally adopt a state program similar to the one administered by the NWSP.

The Ninth Circuit ultimately found that WildEarth had associational standing to bring each of its four claims, and reversed and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321–4370h (2012).
  2. WildEarth Guardians v. U.S. Dep’t of Agric., 795 F.3d 1148, 1154–55 (9th Cir. 2015).
  3. See id. at 1154 (“[E]nvironmental plaintiffs adequately allege injury in fact when they aver that they use the affected area and are persons for whom the aesthetic and recreational values of the area will be lessened by the challenged activity.”).
  4. See Massachusetts v. U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 549 U.S. 497, 526 (2007) (quoting Friends of Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs., Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 183 (2000).
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