Habitat Modification and the Endangered Species Act: The Sweet Home Decision

CRS Report for Congress
Habitat Modification and the Endangered
Species Act: The Sweet Home Decision
Pamela Baldwin
Legislative Attorney
American Law Division
On June 29, 1995, the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision in Babbitt v. Sweet Home
Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon upheld the regulation of the Fish and
Wildlife Service defining "harm" for purposes of the "take" prohibitions of the
Endangered Species Act.1 The regulation includes significant habitat modification within
the meaning of "harm." The Sweet Home decision resolves a difference between the 9th
Circuit, which had upheld the regulation,2 and the D.C. Circuit, which had struck it3
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) prohibits the "take" of endangered species and
threatened species that are by regulation given similar protection. "Take" is defined in the
Act as "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to
attempt to engage in any such conduct."4 There is no additional statutory elaboration on
the meaning of take. Beginning in 1975, the Secretary of Interior, through the Director
of the Fish and Wildlife Service, promulgated regulations that, among other things,
defined "harm":
Harm in the definition of `take' in the Act means an act which actually kills or
injures wildlife. Such act may include significant habitat modification or
degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing
essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, or sheltering.5

1 U.S. No. 94-859; 1995 LEXIS 4463
2 Palila v. Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, 639 F. 2d 495 (9th Cir. 1981)(Palila
I); 852 F. 2d 1106 (9th Cir. 1988)(Palila II).
3 The D.C. Circuit initially upheld the regulation, but later reversed: Sweet Home Chapter of
Communities for a Great Oregon v. Babbitt, 1 F. 3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 1993); 17 F. 3d 1463 (D.C. Cir.


4 16 U.S.C. §1532(19).
5 50 C.F.R. §17.3. This regulation has been in place since 1975, but was amended in 1981 to
emphasize that actual death or injury of a protected animal is necessary for a violation.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

Plaintiffs in the case were landowners, companies, families affected by listings, and
organizations that represented them. The case was brought as a declaratory judgment
action challenging the validity of the regulation on its face, rather than as applied in any
particular instance, and focusing particularly on the inclusion of habitat modification in
the regulatory definition.
The Court found that the text of the ESA supports the regulation in three ways. First,
"harm" must have some meaning different from the other verbs in the series and hence
must mean something beyond physical force directed at a listed creature. The common
meaning of the term is broad and in the context of the ESA it would naturally encompass
habitat modification that injures or kills members of an endangered species. Second, the
purposes of the ESA are broad, including the conservation of ecosystems on which
endangered and threatened species depend. Third, in 1982 Congress amended the ESA,
presumably with an awareness of the then-current regulation and the first Palila case and
not only did not correct the regulation, but added the §10 authorization for "incidental
take permits" allowing the taking of listed species in certain circumstances as part of
otherwise lawful activities the purpose of which was not taking listed species, but that
could foreseeably result in take.
On these points, the majority disagreed with the analysis of the D.C. Circuit and with
the dissenters, and further noted that neither the §5 authority to acquire habitat lands nor
§7 provisions on federal compliance precluded the validity of the regulation. And, given
the posture of the case, the regulation should be upheld in light of the fact that it was a
reasonable interpretation of the statute by the Secretary, to whom Congress had delegated
broad discretion and therefore was entitled to some degree of deference. The majority
also felt the legislative history of the statute supported the interpretation stated in the
regulation; the dissent disagreed on this point as well.
Justice O'Connor, writing in concurrence, emphasized that the challenge before the
Court was a facial challenge to the regulation and that the limitation in the regulation to
significant habitat modification that causes actual death or injury to identifiable protected
animals (including preventing particular individuals from breeding) and the limitations
resulting from the application of ordinary principles of proximate causation, which
introduce notions of foreseeability, would result in reasonable applications. She also
questioned the application of the regulation in the Palila II case because the actions of the
state might not have proximately caused actual injury or death to living birds.
Justice Scalia, joined in dissent by Justices Rehnquist and Thomas, asserted that the
effects of the regulation on private property were not supported by the statute. First, the
regulation prohibits any habitat modification that kills or injures, regardless of whether
that result is intended or foreseeable and no matter how long the chain of causality is
between the modification and injury. Second, the regulation includes omission as well
as commission of actions. Third, because the regulation includes impairment of breeding,
the regulation encompasses injury inflicted not only on individual animals, but upon
populations of species. Justice Scalia could find no basis for these elements either in the
Act or in the traditional meaning of "take."