Science And The Supreme Court

The dusky gopher frog is at the centre of a pitched legal battle over the Endangered Species Act.
The dusky gopher frog is at the centre of a pitched legal battle over the Endangered Species Act.

The US Supreme Court began its latest term on 1 October amid a fierce political battle.

Lawmakers in the Senate have split down party lines over President Donald Trump’s pick to fill a vacant seat on the court. Trump’s choice, conservative federal judge Brett Kavanaugh, faces allegations of sexual assault that have delayed a Senate vote on his nomination. (Kavanaugh denies the allegations.)

For now, the court is evenly divided between conservative and liberal justices. The confirmation of a ninth justice is poised to shift the court’s ideological balance.

Nature looks at the science-related cases that are on the court’s docket, and others that are likely to advance to the highest court in the land.

Endangered species

The Supreme Court’s first case of the term centres on the dusky gopher frog (Lithobates sevosus), one of the most endangered frogs in the world. Development projects have destroyed the amphibians’ natural habitat in the southeastern United States. Now, fewer than 100 frogs remain in a trio of ponds in Mississippi.

To save the frog, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) wants to restore ponds on 2,621 hectares of land in Louisiana owned by timber companies, and then move the animals there. “Even though they’re extraordinary steps, if you don’t do that the frog is doomed,” says Patrick Parenteau, an environmental lawyer at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

But the timber companies, who first sued the FWS in 2014, argue that the pond plan oversteps the bounds of the Endangered Species Act. The law requires the government to protect endangered species’ habitat, but does not specify whether this applies to land that is not currently suitable for a species to occupy.

The case, which justices heard on 1 October, is only the fifth challenge to the Endangered Species Act to come before the Supreme Court since the law took effect in 1973. Parenteau says that the court’s decision could have a broad impact. A ruling in favour of the FWS could pave the way for the government to seize private land and create habitat for other endangered animals and plants — at a time when climate change is rendering many species’ longtime habitats unsuitable.

The court has not yet said whether it will hear a case challenging the Trump administration’s plan to build a wall along the US–Mexico border. Three environmental groups filed suit in August, arguing that the wall would disrupt crucial migration corridors and habitat for jaguars, butterflies and other threatened species.

[Interesting Read]

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