Jan. 22 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a lower-court decision protecting a dusky gopher frog on private land in Louisiana.
The high court will hear the case of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service against Weyerhaeuser Company, a timber producer.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had designated nearly 6,500 acres in Louisiana and Mississippi as a critical habitat for the frog living underground in open-canopied pine forests. That includes more than 1,500 acres on private land in St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana.
Since 2001, the dusky gopher frog has been listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 2012, the U.S. agency designated the private land as protected.
In June 2016, a three-judge panel of 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the classification even though the frogs no longer live on the St. Tammany Parish land. But the court agreed with the federal agency that those lands are essential because they contain five ephemeral ponds, each within hopping distance of the next. They lay their eggs only in these temporary ponds and the parish was the last known Louisiana breeding ground.
The Weyerhaeuser Company wants to use the land for residential and commercial development, as well as timber operations. It argued the wildlife agency abused its power under the Endangered Species Act.
"The landowners thus face the Catch-22 that they can continue forestry operations on the frogless land largely unhindered by the designation," the company wrote.
If it tries to develop the land, consistent with existing plans and zoning, the designation may well stop the development in its tracks -- "which again would not help the frog. Either way, the designation destroys economic activity, leaves the land as unoccupied non-habitat, and does nothing to help the frog."
The lower court ruled that critical-habitat designations do not transform private land into wildlife refuges.
"We're disappointed the Supreme Court took up the case but confident the justices will ultimately uphold this imperiled frog's habitat protections," said Collette Adkins, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney who works to conserve amphibians and reptiles. "The Fish and Wildlife Service followed the unanimous advice of frog experts in deciding to protect essential habitat of these critically endangered animals."
Although at one time prevalent throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, dusky gopher frogs are now nearly extinct.
"The Supreme Court's ruling is bad news for these endangered frogs," said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. "This lawsuit attempts to gut essential habitat protections for the frog. For too long the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had to focus its limited resources on defending this decision rather than recovering the frogs and restoring their habitat."
The Center for Biological Diversity and Gulf Restoration Network are participatating in the litigation before the Supreme Court.