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Ninth Circuit Finds U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Failed to Explain Reversal of Previous ESA Listing Decision Regarding Pacific Walrus

Ninth Circuit Finds U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Failed to Explain Reversal of Previous ESA Listing Decision Regarding Pacific Walrus
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By James Purvis

The Center for Biological Diversity brought an action challenging a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS or Service) to reverse its previous decision that the Pacific walrus qualified for listing as an endangered or threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The U.S. District Court had granted summary judgment for the Service, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the USFWS did not sufficiently explain its change in position. [Center for Biological Diversity v. Haaland, ___F.3d___, Case No. 19-35981 (9th Cir. June 3, 2021).]

Factual and Procedural Background

In 2008, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the USFWS to list the Pacific walrus as threatened or endangered under the ESA, citing the claimed effects of climate change on walrus habitat. In February 2011, after completing a special status assessment, the USFWS issued a decision finding that listing of the Pacific walrus was warranted, finding that: the loss of sea-ice habitat threatened the walrus; subsistence hunting threatened the walrus; and existing regulatory mechanisms to reduce or limit greenhouse gas emissions to stem sea-ice loss or ensure that harvests decrease at a level commensurate to predicted population declines were inadequate. Although the Pacific walrus qualified for listing, however, the need to prioritize more urgent listing actions led the Service to conclude that listing was at the time precluded.

The USFWS reviewed the Pacific walrus’s status annually through 2016, each time finding that listing was warranted but precluded. In May 2017, the Service completed a final species status assessment. Among other things, that assessment concluded that while certain changes, such as sea-ice loss and associated stressors, continued to impact the walrus, other stressors identified in 2011 had declined in magnitude. The review team believed that Pacific walruses were adapted to living in a dynamic environment and had demonstrated the ability to adjust their distribution and habitat use patterns in response to shifting patterns of ice. The assessment also concluded, however, that the walrus’ ability to adapt to increasing stress in the future was uncertain.

In October 2017, after reviewing the assessment, the USFWS issued a three-page final decision that the Pacific walrus no longer qualified as threatened. Like the 2011 decision, this decision identified the primary threat as the loss of sea-ice habitat. Unlike the earlier decision, however, the 2017 decision did not discuss each statutory factor and cited few supporting studies. Mainly, it incorporated the May 2017 assessment by reference, finding that, although there will likely be a future reduction in sea ice, the Service was unable to reliably predict the magnitude of the effect and the behavioral response of the walrus to this change. Thus, it did not have reliable information showing that the magnitude of the change could be sufficient to put the species in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future. The decision also found that the scope of any effects associated with an increased need for the walrus to use coastal haulouts similarly was uncertain. The 2017 decision referred to the 2011 decision only in its procedural history.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed its lawsuit in 2018, alleging that the 2017 decision violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the ESA. In particular, the Center for Biological Diversity claimed that the Service violated the APA by failing to sufficiently explain its change in position from the earlier 2011 decision. The U.S. District Court granted summary judgment to the USFWS, and the Center for Biological Diversity in turn appealed.

The Ninth Circuit’s Decision

The Ninth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment, finding that the “essential flaw” in the 2017 decision was its failure to offer more than a cursory explanation of why the findings underlying the 2011 decision no longer applied. Where a new policy rests upon factual findings contradicting those underlying a prior policy, the Ninth Circuit explained, a sufficiently detailed justification is required. The 2011 decision had contained findings, with citations to scientific studies and data, detailing multiple stressors facing the Pacific walrus and explained why those findings justified listing. The 2017 decision, by contrast, was “spartan,” simply containing a general summary of the threats facing the Pacific walrus and the agency’s new uncertainty on the imminence and seriousness of those threats. The Ninth Circuit found that more was needed.

The Ninth Circuit also found that the 2017 decision’s incorporation of the final species status assessment did not remedy the deficiencies. The assessment did not purport, for example, to be a decision document, and while it provided information it did not explain the reasons for the change in position. The assessment itself also reflected substantial uncertainty and, while it did provide at least some new information, it did not identify the agency’s rationale for concluding that the specific stressors identified as problematic in the 2011 decision no longer posed a threat to the species within the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit noted, the USFWS may be able to issue a decision sufficiently explaining the reasons for the change in position regarding the Pacific walrus. But the 2017 decision was not sufficient to do so, and the Ninth Circuit found that it could not itself come up with the reasons from the large and complex record. It therefore reversed the grant of summary judgment with directions to the U.S. District Court to remand to the Service to provide a sufficient explanation of the new position.

Conclusion and Implications

The case is significant because it contains a substantive discussion regarding the standards of judicial review that apply when an administrative agency alters a previous policy and a general discussion of the listing process under the ESA. The decision is available online at: