Litigating the “butterfly effect”: Proximate Cause, Imminent Harm and Endangered Whooping Cranes

Posted on August 6, 2014 by Molly Cagle

A recent ruling from the Fifth Circuit involving the endangered whooping crane clarifies the level of proof require to show to establish  proximate cause of  “take” under the federal Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The case also sets important precedent on the level of imminent harm required to obtain injunctive relief in ESA litigation.

The case, The Arkansas Project v. Shaw, involves the last remaining wild flock of whooping cranes in the world. According to plaintiff, The Aransas Project (“TAP”), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (“TCEQ”) water permitting program in 2008-09 caused the deaths of twenty-three endangered cranes (of the approximately 300 remaining in the wild) via the following seven-link chain of causation:

1. TCEQ grants water-rights permits.

2. Water-rights holders divert water

3. Low inflows of water into bays increase bay salinities.

4. Increased salinities diminish available foods for cranes.

5. Diminished food supplies cause cranes to search upland for food.

6. Upland movement of cranes causes them stress.

7. Stress weakens flock and causes crane deaths.

Defendant TCEQ and intervenors, including the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and Texas Chemical Council, challenged each causation step during a week-long trial in 2011. In March 2013, the federal district court judge issued a 125-page opinion agreeing with TAP’s theory and adopted TAP’s fact findings verbatim. The district court also ordered the TCEQ to immediately apply for an incidental take permit and submit a habitat conservation plan (as if it were that easy). Additionally, the Court enjoined TCEQ from issuing any new water permits in the Guadalupe and San Antonio River Basins, interjecting itself as the watermaster for all new and modified permits in the basins.  TCEQ and intervenors appealed the order to the Fifth Circuit and successfully stayed the district court injunction. After an expedited briefing schedule, oral argument before the Fifth Circuit took place in the summer of 2013.

On June 30, 2014, the Fifth Circuit per curiam reversed the district court.  The court of appeals held that TAP failed to prove TCEQ proximately caused takes of cranes. The Fifth Circuit is one of the first court of appeals to closely examine the issue of proximate cause and ESA liability since Justice O’Connor penned her concurrence on the subject in the 1995 U.S. Supreme Court opinion Babbit v. Sweet Home. Evoking the famous 1920s Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad case, the Fifth Circuit compared TAP’s claims to the “butterfly effect” (i.e. the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can affect storm systems in New York).

Importantly, the appeals court called into question the district court’s “simplistic” conclusion that a government entity can cause take simply by authorizing an activity that ultimately affects a species. The court noted that prior instances of governmental regulatory liability for take involved actions that “directly killed or injured species or eliminated their habitat.”

Ultimately, the court examined every link of TAP’s chain of causation and concluded that the district court and TAP simply failed to account for the number of contingencies, e.g. drought, affecting each link.  As the court summed up, “only a fortuitous confluence of adverse factors caused the unexpected 2008–2009 die-off found by the district court. This is the essence of unforeseeability.”

For future ESA litigation, the court’s analysis of the standard required to obtain injunctive relief is as important as its detailed treatment of proximate causation. In particular, the court noted that the district court focused almost exclusively on the injury that occurred in 2008-2009 and could not explain how a steadily increasing flock showed that there was a reasonably certain threat of imminent harm to the cranes. The court held: “Injunctive relief for the indefinite future cannot be predicated on the unique events of one year without proof of their likely, imminent replication.” This is important precedent for future district courts examining injunctive relief even when past take liability can be proven.

TAP petitioned the Fifth Circuit for a rehearing en banc on July 28, 2014 questioning whether an appeals court can rule on proximate cause as a matter of law. So this case may not be over. But if the court’s ruling stands, it will provide fruitful discussion to examine for future ESA litigation. 

Full disclosure: ACOEL Fellow Molly Cagle represented lead intervenor Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority in the Fifth Circuit appeal. She does not attest to any lack of bias in this case and is proud of the fact that the cranes are still doing well, despite unprecedented drought in Texas. 



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