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The Administrative Procedure Act governs judicial review of agency decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C.S. § 4321 et seq. If an agency decides not to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS), the decision not to do so may be overturned only if it is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law. More specifically, an appellate court must determine whether the agencies that prepared the environmental assessment (EA) took a "hard look" at the environmental consequences of the proposed action. The court must defer to an agency conclusion that is fully informed and well-considered, but need not rubber stamp a clear error of judgment.
Defendant-intervenor Makah Indian Tribe sought to revive traditional whale hunting after the gray whales had been removed from the endangered species list. The tribe entered into an agreement with the defendant government which committed the government to seek an aboriginal subsistence quota from the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Plaintiffs Will Anderson, Fund For Animals et al., citizens and animal conservation groups, challenged defendant government's failure to prepare an environmental impact statement pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C.S. § 4321 et seq., with regard to defendant-intervenor’s whaling plan. Plaintiffs alleged that the defendant government violated NEPA and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), 16 U.S.C.S. § 1361 et seq., when it agreed to help the tribe obtain hunting rights without conducting an environmental assessment. The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction to prevent an anticipated whale hunt, but the district court denied the motion, concluding that the federal agencies had taken the requisite "hard look" at the risks associated with the whale hunt and that the court was required to defer to their decision. The district court also held that the plaintiffs did not have a probability of success on the merits, and that the Treaty of Neah Bay's preservation of the Tribe's whaling rights takes precedence over the MMPA's requirements. Thus, the plaintiffs, therefore, were unlikely to prevail on their MMPA claim as well. While the preliminary injunction decision was on appeal, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants. The plaintiffs now appeal the summary judgment order.
Did the trial court err in granting defendant’s summary judgment in plaintiff’s action alleging violations of NEPA and the MMPA?
The court reversed the district court’s judgment because the court found that the environmental assessment did not adequately address the highly uncertain impact of the tribe's whaling on the local whale population and the local ecosystem. The court ruled that the MMPA was applicable to regulate any whaling proposed by the tribe because the MMPA's application was necessary to effectuate the conservation purpose of the statute, and because such application was consistent with the language of the tribe's treaty with the United States. Therefore, the court held that the defendant government's approval of the tribe's whaling quota absent MMPA compliance was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law. 5 U.S.C.S. § 706(2)(A).