How Could an Upcoming US Supreme Court Decision Impact Amphibians and Reptiles?

When planning conservation actions for imperiled amphibians and reptiles, we not only have to consider factors like their population sizes, habitat needs, and genetics, but we also must take into account laws and regulations. Recently, the highest court in the land, the US Supreme Court, heard arguments in a case that could affect some of those laws and regulations. Central to this case is a legal framework called Chevron deference, which has an oversized impact on wildlife conservation, broader environmental issues, and any number of other legal matters.

Why is Chevron deference relevant now, and what is it?

On January 17, 2024, the court heard the “Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo” case about whether fishing boat operators can be forced to pay the cost of hosting inspectors. This case brought a somewhat stodgy-sounding but important legal principle called the Chevron deference back in front of the court’s justices.

A little background on the Chevron deference is helpful in understanding its gravity. It’s a legal principle established by the Supreme Court in their ruling on the “Chevron USA vs. NRDC” court case in 1984. It holds that courts should give broad deference to an administrative agency’s reasonable interpretation of ambiguous statutes. 

In other words, when a statute isn’t completely clear, it’s up to the relevant administrative agency, like the US Fish and Wildlife Service or the US Environmental Protection Agency, to interpret it. This happens quite a bit. In these cases, the courts are not supposed to substitute their own interpretation of the statute for the interpretation made by the administrative agency. 

If Chevron deference is overturned, administrative agencies with relevant expertise will lose their authority to interpret statutes, and that authority will instead be handed to judges. There are hundreds of circuit court judges, each with their own judicial philosophies, areas of expertise, and political leanings. 

Why is Chevron deference important for wildlife?

The large number of sensitive wildlife species in the US that are already teetering on the edge of extinction can ill afford the inevitable setbacks they’ll face if the Chevron deference is overturned. At issue is who will interpret ambiguous environmental statutes: the relevant administrative agency or the courts?

“It’ll be a big loss if the agencies with which we closely partner are no longer able to use their considerable expertise to interpret statutes relating to wildlife conservation. It would literally be taking important conservation decisions out of the hands of trained experts and putting them into the hands of judges, many of whom haven’t taken a biology class since high school,” ARC Executive Director JJ Apodaca explained. “It’ll mean that, as a conservation community, we’ll be hampered in our ability to carry out protection efforts for species that are running out of time.”

Many experts are predicting that the court will discard the Chevron deference. “If this comes to pass, it’ll greatly limit the power of government agencies to develop and enforce rules that protect wildlife and the environment,” said ARC Private Lands and Policy Director Kat Diersen. 

How could reptiles and amphibians be affected if Chevron deference is discarded?

If Chevron deference is overturned, there will be wide-ranging impacts on decisions about environmental statutes, from acceptable pollution levels to how the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is applied. In fact, ambiguous statutes in the ESA have led to regulatory challenges in the past. For example, the flat-tailed horned lizard was the subject of a long-lasting back and forth between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the courts, including the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. This resulted from an ambiguous phrase in an ESA statute, “Significant Portion of its Range (SPR).”

These impacts could also extend to decisions regarding critical habitat, an area essential for an ESA-listed species. Critical habitats frequently include wetlands because more than one-third of federally-listed Threatened and Endangered species live solely in wetlands, and many more depend on wetlands for some stages of their lives. “Amphibians, which rely heavily on wetlands, are the most threatened group of vertebrates in the world,” said JJ. We’re currently carrying out on-the-ground conservation efforts for numerous federally listed wetland-dependent species, including frosted flatwoods salamanders, Chiracahua leopard frogs, Houston toads, and bog turtles, as well as species that are under review for listing, such as gopher frogs.

What about broader implications?

ARC’s work, which involves large voluntary partnerships to recover threatened and endangered species, will become even more important if federal oversight is restricted. However, no one nonprofit or group of organizations will be able to fill the gap if environmental protections are diluted, and the consequences could be very problematic for both wildlife and people.

“Every time we weaken environmental policy, the most vulnerable among us are the ones who feel it,” said JJ. “This not only includes endangered wildlife but also the people in our society who bear the brunt of the impacts, including resource extraction and pollution, namely Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. It’s an issue of justice for our native wildlife and the people of the US.”

A decision is expected from the court by this summer.