Endangered spiders on Williamson County ranch at the center of lawsuit web

A Bone Cave Harvestman spider. Austin Water Photo.
A Bone Cave Harvestman spider. Austin Water Photo.

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A rancher’s legal battle over small cave spiders on his Williamson County land is becoming a much bigger battle about governmental powers and how the Endangered Species Act applies to landowners.

Williamson County is home to the Bone Cave Harvestman spider which has been listed as an endangered species since 1988, meaning those who own land or oversee land in the spider’s natural habitat must take care to preserve the habitat.

Rancher John Yearwood and Williamson County filed a motion in October against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the way the agency places and keeps species on the list is unconstitutional.

Yearwood, who lives on a ranch where Bone Cave Harvestman spiders were found, said he keeps as little activity as possible on that stretch of his property. On other parts of his land, he hosts campers and community groups, but on his property where the spiders live, he doesn’t let people visit. He is afraid of the consequences of federal punishment around disturbing the endangered species.

“This isn’t just this ranch, all kinds of people in Williamson County are facing the same thing,” Yearwood said. His family has owned the lot there since the 1870s.

Although Yearwood noted he had never been contacted by anyone with the federal government about punishment or fines related to disturbing spiders on his property,  he is afraid of the consequences

Robert Henneke, general counsel with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said this lawsuit has been pending for two years. TPPF joined the lawsuit along with American Stewards of Liberty to represent Williamson County rancher John Yearwood as well as Williamson County.

Henneke explained the Endangered Species Act was enacted to support species through powers to regulate interstate commerce. However, for species like the Bone Cave Harvestman — which are only found in Williamson and Travis counties and Henneke believes the argument for protecting species through interstate commerce powers doesn’t make sense and violated the Constitution.

“We’re using that new case law to show that the Endangered Species Act’s regulation of species that only exist in one state and don’t have any relationship to commerce is unconstitutional and should be struck down,” Henneke said.

TPPF sees this lawsuit as part of a larger effort to limit federal government.

“With this case, we’re not just looking to stand up for Mr. Yearwood’s personal property rights, we’re also looking to win a case that will limit the power of the federal government and will restore more liberty and more property rights back to Americans,” Henneke said. He believes that winning this case would change how other endangered species are regulated as well. TPPF has also been involved with efforts to de-list the Golden-Cheeked Warbler.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the primary threat to these spiders as habitat destruction, through things like filling caves with cement, quarry activity or excessive human visitation. The Bone Cave Harvestman spiders depend on a very particular set of nutrients and living conditions, and while their lives are spent underground, their habitats depend on the conditions on the ground above them.

Several groups including Travis Audubon, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife have been part of legal efforts to counter the suit over this issue. In 2016, those groups expressed opposition to the suit not only because the Harvestman is “incredibly rare” but also because they believe it’s important for conservation efforts to keep the Endangered Species Act intact.

The Department of Justice is representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and has a month to respond to the motion filed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Oral arguments for this case are set to begin at a federal court in Austin this March.

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