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The Supreme Court fight over this rare frog could change the fate of all endangered species

The dusky gopher frog is on the brink of extinction, and protecting timber land is its best chance at survival.

by Emma Fidel and Christina Sterbenz
Sep 26 2018, 7:39pm

SAUCIER, Mississippi — If Brett Kavanaugh makes it through his Senate confirmation for the Supreme Court by Monday, he could become the tie-breaking vote in a case that affects the future of endangered species.

Right now, the dusky gopher frog — an endangered species with only 200 adults left in the wild — lives only in Mississippi. In an effort to expand the population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated about 1,500 acres in Louisiana to help rehabilitate the frog. But the agency ran into a problem: Weyerhaeuser, one of the world’s largest timber companies, partially owns the land and sued the government to avoid restrictions on the area.

The case, which the high court will hear on Oct. 1, pits private property rights against the federal government’s conservation efforts. And if the logging giant wins, the decision could severely restrict the government’s ability to protect land in the future, not only for the dusky gopher frog, but for all endangered species.

According to the government’s estimate, designating the land — which would need drastic change to support the frog population — as protected habitat could cost the landowners up to $34 million. Still, experts maintain it’s necessary for the species’ survival.

“It is perfectly valid to ask why we should bother with the dusky gopher frog because their population is so low anyway,” said Jaime Elizabeth Smith, a research assistant at The University of Southern Mississippi who’s part of a small team trying to rehabilitate the frog population. “The habitat that we’re creating and trying to preserve for the dusky gopher frog allows us to benefit a wide variety of animals.”

Without Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court would likely split down the middle when deciding the case, which would maintain Fish and Wildlife’s protections on the land. But Kavanaugh — who’s facing numerous accusations of sexual assault that threaten his confirmation to the bench — could tip the balance in favor of Weyerhaeuser. During his time on the D.C. circuit appellate court, Kavanaugh ruled against protecting land for an endangered shrimp species in a similar case. He also has a history of tossing out environmental regulations.

On top of the issues directly in front of the high court, the Trump administration proposed sweeping rollbacks to protections within the Endangered Species Act in July. By siding with Weyerhaeuser, Kavanaugh could help set a precedent that would make it easier to gut some of those rules.

Video edited by Jessica Opon.

Cover: A critically endangered dusky gopher frog (Photo: Zach Caldwell/VICE News)

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