U.S. top court takes up property rights case involving endangered frog

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed hear a bid by timber company Weyerhaeuser Co seeking to limit the federal government’s power to designate private land as protected habitat for endangered species in a case involving a warty amphibian called the dusky gopher frog.

The endangered dusky gopher frog, a darkly colored, moderately sized frog with warts covering its back and dusky spots on its belly, is shown in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters January 22, 2018. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Handout via REUTERS

Weyerhaeuser harvests timber on the Louisiana land in question and is backed in the case by business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Weyerhaeuser challenged a lower court ruling upholding a 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to include private land where the frog does not currently live as critical habitat, potentially putting restrictions on future development opportunities.

The case pits property rights against federal conservation measures. The frog, found only in four locations in southern Mississippi, also previously inhabited Louisiana and Alabama.

The U.S. government identified the Louisiana land partly owned by Weyerhaeuser, which is based in Washington state, as meeting the criteria for the frog’s habitat under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“This was a decision that cried out for review,” said the company’s lawyer, Timothy Bishop, adding that federal law is “absolutely clear that critical habitat must first be habitat.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The agency’s critical habitat designation covered the tract of 1,544 acres (about 625 hectares) of private land in Louisiana as well as nearly 5,000 acres (about 2,025 hectares) in Mississippi. The owners of the Louisiana land filed a legal challenge to the designation, saying it would infringe on their rights to use the property as they see fit.

The frog has been listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2001. Critical habitat is defined as an area essential to the conservation of a species that may require special management or protection.

The Fish and Wildlife Service described the frog as darkly colored and moderately sized with warts covering its back and dusky spots on its belly.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the government in 2016. The Supreme Court, due to hear the case in its next term that starts in October, did not act on a similar appeal brought by owners of other parcels of the Louisiana land.

In another endangered species case, the Supreme Court on Monday rejected a challenge to federal protections for a rare type of seal that were based on projections of future loss of habitat attributed to climate change.

In declining to hear appeals brought by the state of Alaska and industry groups, the justices left in place a 2012 decision by the administration of former President Barack Obama to protect a bearded seal subspecies that mainly lives off the coast of Alaska.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham