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The APA provides that a reviewing court shall hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings, and conclusions found to be in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, or short of statutory right. 5 U.S.C.S. § 706(2). In considering whether an agency's construction of its authorizing statute is permissible, the court applies the ordinary tools of statutory construction to determine whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. If the statute is ambiguous and the agency has acted pursuant to congressionally delegated authority to make law and with the intent to act with the force of law, the court will defer to the agency construction so long as it is reasonable. The question in every case is, simply, whether the statutory text forecloses the agency's assertion of authority, or not. Finally, the court must give substantial deference to an agency's interpretation of its own regulations. Its task is not to decide which among several competing interpretations best serves the regulatory purpose. Rather, the agency's interpretation must be given controlling weight unless it is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.
By regulation issued pursuant to the Endangered Species Act ("ESA"), sport-hunted African elephant trophies may only be imported into the United States if, among other things, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ("Service") makes "[a] determination…that the killing of the trophy animal will enhance the survival of the species." 50 C.F.R. § 17.40(e)(6)(i)(B) ("Special Rule"). On April 4, 2014, the Service issued a press release stating that the agency lacked sufficient information to support a positive enhancement determination with respect to elephant trophies hunted in Zimbabwe during the 2014 hunting season. The finding, which was subsequently published in the Federal Register, banned the importation of such trophies going forward from the date of the finding. The Service also made negative enhancement findings in July of 2014 and March of 2015, each time concluding that information concerning the size of the Zimbabwean elephant population and status of conservation efforts in Zimbabwe did not support a conclusion that killing the animal "will enhance the survival of the species." Safari Club International ("Safari Club") and the National Rifle Association ("NRA") (collectively, "Appellants") filed suit in District Court to challenge the 2014 and 2015 findings. Appellants claimed that the agency's actions were arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA") and violated the ESA because, inter alia, in its determinations to ban the elephant imports, the Service impermissibly relied on standards that are more stringent than the statutory requirements in the ESA. The District Court denied Appellants' motion for summary judgment on these claims and granted judgment for the Service.
Was the contention that the Service erred in adopting the 2014 and 2015 enhancement findings without adhering to the notice-and-comment rule-making requirements of the APA meritorious?
The court held that the district court erred in rejecting this claim on the ground that the enhancement findings were the product of adjudications not covered by the APA's rule-making requirements. The Service erred in adopting the findings without first following the notice-and-comment rule-making requirements. The Service reasonably interpreted 50 C.F.R. § 17.40(e)(6)(i)(B) to require a holistic inquiry into whether hunting enhanced the species' survival on net, taking into account the sustainability of the existing elephant population in light of the detriments hunting posed to elephant survival.