Landowners Lose Again in Fight to Strip Protections for Rare Spider

The rare Bone Cave harvestman spider of Central Texas has for years been at the center of a dispute over environmental regulations and private property rights.

Bone Cave harvestman spiders in a cave in Travis County, Texas. (Photo via Piers Hendrie/Wikipedia Commons)

(CN) — A rare species of blind, cave-dwelling spider in the Central Texas hill country will remain federally protected under the Endangered Species Act for now, despite a legal fight brought by landowners and private property advocates who claim the spider’s protection has threatened development projects and led to tens of millions of dollars in permitting costs.

On Friday, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit ruled that Williamson County landowner John Yearwood and the local advocacy group American Stewards of Liberty cannot appeal an earlier decision in the years-long dispute, where a lower court rejected Yearwood’s argument that the spider’s endangered listing was unconstitutional.

That argument was raised as part of a much broader legal battle, in which the landowner interests have tried to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the spider from the endangered species list.

Last year, a federal district judge in Austin ruled that the service was wrong to reject the landowners’ original petition from 2014 to delist the spider. The agency has since launched a new, more thorough review of the spider’s status, which remains pending.

Though the landowners were encouraged by that ruling, Friday’s decision from the Fifth Circuit was a blow to their claim that adding the spider to the endangered species list was unconstitutional in the first place.

In its decision, which turned more on procedure than the merits of the case, the New Orleans-based appeals court concluded it did not have jurisdiction to consider Yearwood’s appeal. The court reasoned that the appeal was either filed too late under the statute of limitations in the case, or alternatively, that it sought to challenge the older Fish and Wildlife Service environmental review that is no longer valid.

Though federal wildlife officials could ultimately decide on their own that the spider doesn’t need to be protected anymore, one environmental group that intervened in the case still described the Fifth Circuit decision as a win.

“The substantive issue of the constitutionality of the [Endangered Species Act] was decided years ago,” said Jason Rylander, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “It is our view that this species still warrants protection under the ESA.”

American Stewards of Liberty, based in Georgetown, Texas, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Friday ruling.

Rylander challenged the notion that the landowners in the case had been directly impacted by the protections.

“None of these plaintiffs have filed an application for development and been denied an application, and said hey, this spider is affecting my property,” he said.

Still, conservative interests argue the threat is real. Yearwood’s case has been promoted as an example of government intrusion on private property rights by the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation. The group has specifically argued that regulations surrounding the spider could threaten the landowner’s tradition of offering free camping to local church youth groups and 4-H clubs, because the spider lives in the camping area of the property.

Yearwood’s saga has also drawn the support of Texas’ Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who applauded the landowners’ district court victory in 2019.

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