Third District Court of Appeal Gives Great Deference in Quasi-Judicial Agency Decision Not to Delist Coho Salmon, Ending Decades-Long Dispute
In Central Coast Forest Association v. Fish and Game Commission (2018) 18 Cal. App. 5th 1191, the California Third District Court of Appeal found the California Fish and Game Commission (Commission) was correct to deny a petition to delist coho salmon from state protection under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). Deferring to the scientific expertise of the Commission, the Court held there was substantial evidence to support the decision where petitioner’s arguments rested purely on speculation.
To delist a species under CESA, the Commission must find a petition is warranted and, if so, determine if the action to list or delist is warranted. The Commission bases these initial and secondary findings on highly-technical and scientific information from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The coho salmon in southern San Francisco/Santa Cruz County have been a CESA-listed endangered species since 1995. In 2004, the Commission expanded the listing’s parameters and delineated coho salmon north of Punta Gorda as a threatened species and coho salmon south of Punta Gorda as an endangered species. Central Coast Forest Association and Big Creek Lumber Company (Petitioners) sought delisting of the southern coho salmon. Petitioners alleged the fish were not endangered species as there were never wild, native salmon in the region; and if there were, they were destroyed by unfavorable environmental conditions. Further, the salmon present are solely sustained by hatchery plants, and as such, are not wild or native to California.
The Commission considered and denied Petitioners’ delisting petition in 2005 and again in 2007 for failing to contain sufficient scientific information. Petitioners twice failed to gain an order from the Superior Court overturning the decisions. Upon appeal, the California Supreme Court remanded the matter to the Third District Court of Appeal.
In reviewing, the Court focused on the sufficiency of the evidence and the deference they award to such determinations. Petitioners were required to present sufficient information to indicate the delisting may be warranted, information that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that there was a “substantial possibility” delisting could occur. Evidence is sufficient only if it is material, credible, supports the petition, and, when weighed against the Commission’s written report and any comments received, is strong enough to indicate that delisting may be justified.
Where the Commission’s decision to delist species is quasi-judicial, a higher deference is awarded to Commission findings. Specifically, the Commission’s technical and scientific resources and its legally wide discretion in decision-making makes the Court affirm the decision where the weight of the evidence is clearly justified or unclear. The Court will only reverse the decision where the evidence clearly weighs against it.
The Court examined the Commission’s evidence and Petitioner’s evidence regarding coho salmon’s historical existence in the contested area; including archaeological Native American middens, historical newspaper articles, hatchery records, drought and flood records, historical environmental factors, and genetic evidence. The Court found the Commission’s evidence was sufficient to determine Petitioner’s delisting petition unwarranted. The Commission showed that coho salmon are native to the contested area by genetically sequencing and comparing extant salmon with salmon museum specimens collected in 1895 from four adjacent streams in Santa Cruz County.
The Commission’s evidence also showed the sustained coho salmon population is not the result of hatchery planting. Historic hatchery output was sporadic and small in the southern San Francisco region, therefore the current population was not likely descended from local stock and no genetic evidence showed the current population is descended from out-of-state stock. The Court noted that even if existing populations were bolstered by local non-wild hatchery fish, these fish would genetically be considered California-native hatchery fish, and thus would be protected by the CESA.
Ultimately, the Court dismissed Petitioners’ evidence for it was “circumstantial” where they were “pick[ing] out bits of information that appear to substantiate their claim.” Thus, the Commission’s decision was appropriate where Petitioners’ claims were the product of “no scientifically credible data” and “[w]hat the petitioners call ‘evidence’ is actually persuasive writing, not valid scientific evidence.”
Answering technical questions posed by the Supreme Court, the Court found that a species “range” for consideration, per the Department of the Interior interpretation, is wherever the species is found, not only where it is known or historically known to be. Further, a portion of a listed species may only be delisted where it is individually “carved out” as a separate species, unlike what was petitioned for here.
Because the Commission has highly technical knowledge and delegated authority to list and delist endangered species, the Court affirmed the Commission decision to deny the delisting petition.
Where a quasi-judicial agency decision is challenged, the Court will give great deference to the decision, affirming where evidence is sufficient or unclear to support the decision. Sufficient evidence to the contrary is where credible, scientific based evidence outweighs the agency’s evidence.