Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon

As relevant here, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA or Act) makes it unlawful for any person to “take” endangered or threatened species, § 9(a)(1)(B), and defines “take” to mean to “harass, harm, pursue,” “wound,” or “kill,” § 3(19). In 50 CFR § 17.3, petitioner Secretary of the Interior further defines “harm” to include “significant habitat modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife.” Respondents, persons and entities dependent on the forest products industries and others, challenged this regulation on its face, claiming that Congress did not intend the word “take” to include habitat modification. The District Court granted petitioners summary judgment, but the Court of Appeals ultimately reversed. Invoking the noscitur a sociis canon of statutory construction, which holds that a word is known by the company it keeps, the court concluded that “harm,” like the other words in the definition of “take,” should be read as applying only to the perpetrator’s direct application of force against the animal taken.Held: The Secretary reasonably construed Congress’ intent when he defined “harm” to include habitat modification. pp. 696-708.(a) The Act provides three reasons for preferring the Secretary’s interpretation. First, the ordinary meaning of “harm” naturally encompasses habitat modification that results in actual injury or death to members of an endangered or threatened species. Unless “harm” encompasses indirect as well as direct injuries, the word has no meaning that does not duplicate that of other words that § 3 uses to define “take.” Second, the ESA’s broad purpose of providing comprehensive protection for endangered and threatened species supports the reasonableness of the Secretary’s definition. Respondents advance strong arguments that activities causing minimal or unforeseeable harm will not violate the Act as construed in the regulation, but their facial challenge would require that the Secretary’s understanding of harm be invalidated in every circumstance.