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Shields v. Babbitt: Court Rules Endangered Species Act Can Regulate Intrastate-Only Species

The United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, Midland-Odessa Division, recently ruled against a challenge to the Endangered Species Act on constitutional grounds. Financial support to the challenge was contributed by NAR's Legal Action Committee.

Pursuant to its power to regulate interstate commerce, Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act in 1973 with a goal of protecting and promoting the recovery of endangered and threatened animals, fish, and plants. The Secretary of the Interior is charged with listing those species threatened with extinction. Among the species listed as "endangered" or "threatened" by the Secretary of the Interior were the fountain darter (a fish), San Marcos salamander, San Marcos gambusia, the Texas blind salamander, and Texas wild rice (collectively, "Threatened Species"). All of these species live exclusively within western Texas.

Hunter Schuehle is a rancher who owns land which contains part of the water supply which was claimed to be necessary to maintain the Threatened Species’ habitat. Schuehle's diversion of the water flow from his property to serve other interests was brought to the attention of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service ("USFWS") by the Sierra Club. Eventually, Schuehle filed a lawsuit challenging certain subsequent determinations made by the USFWS and the Secretary of the Interior as unconstitutional, arguing that all of the Threatened Species resided exclusively within Texas and did not affect interstate commerce. Therefore, Schuehle argued, these determinations were an unconstitutional exercise of the interstate commerce clause.

The court rejected Schuehle's challenge. In reaching its decision, the court looked to the standards enumerated in a number of recent United States Supreme Court decisions which have helped define the modern parameters of the interstate commerce clause. The court found that the determinations made in this case were a valid exercise of the interstate commerce clause. The court also ruled that the Endangered Species Act was a valid exercise by Congress of two other Constitutional provisions- the "necessary and proper" clause, as well as the treaty-making power.

Schuehle's case is being appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Shields v. Babbitt, 229 F. Supp. 2d 638 (W.D. Tex. 2000).

Editors Note: To read summaries of recent cases supported by NAR’s Legal Action Committee, (click here).