In Defenders of Wildlife v. Zinke, the Ninth Circuit upheld the Biological Opinion prepared by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to assess the impacts on the threatened desert tortoise from the Silver State South solar project in southern Nevada. 856 F.3d 1248 (9th Cir. 2017). A key takeaway from the decision is the substantial deference that the courts give to the scientific judgments of the FWS, especially in the face of scientific uncertainty.
The Biological Opinion
The principal issue in the case was that the project, which required approval by the Bureau of Land Management of a right-of-way over federal land, would narrow the corridor for the movement of the desert tortoise through the Ivanpah Valley in southern Nevada, although the project and the affected corridor were located outside of the species’ designated critical habitat. The Biological Opinion recognized that the project’s impact on the “connectivity” of the tortoise’s movement through the Valley was uncertain in light of the available data. But it found that the corridor provided for the species’ movement was likely to be sufficiently wide and it included a monitoring program that would be used to develop conservation measures to identify and address any negative impacts if they did occur.
In accordance with the procedures for “formal consultation” under the Endangered Species Act, the Biological Opinion made a “no jeopardy” finding, which determined that the project would not jeopardize the continued existence of the tortoise. The Biological Opinion further concluded that formal consultation was not required to assess the potential modifications to the critical habitat for the tortoise, and instead relied on the more summary process of “informal consultation” to find that the project was not likely to affect this habitat.
Based on the Biological Opinion, in 2014 the BLM approved the federal right-of-way for the project.
The Ninth Circuit’s Decision
In upholding the Biological Opinion, the Ninth Circuit first rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the FWS did not adequately specify the applicable mitigation measures to support the “no jeopardy” finding. The court reasoned that nothing in the ESA required firm, binding mitigation to address negative effects that are uncertain to occur. The court explained that “our precedents do not require mitigation measures to be identified or guaranteed when the mitigation measures themselves may be unnecessary.”
The court further explained that, while a Biological Opinion must use the best scientific data that is available, the court was required to defer to the FWS in the face of scientific uncertainty. As the court cautioned, “it is not our job to task the FWS with filling the gaps in the scientific evidence” and “we must respect the agency’s judgment.” The court quoted the district court’s finding that “the FWS cannot be expected to respond to data that is not yet available to surmise potential mitigation actions that are not needed under the agency’s current interpretation of the data.”
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Upholds Biological Opinion for Silver State South Solar Project in Nevada