The Endangered Species Act is a double-edged sword that can be used to fight for less, not just more, federal protection of animals and plants, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The unanimous decision in a case from Oregon said people who contend they have suffered economic harm from the act's enforcement may invoke the same law in accusing the federal government of doing too much to protect some species.
The Clinton administration had sought a "one-way" interpretation of the law.
A top Justice Department official discounted the decision's importance.
"It won't make a significant difference in the everyday operation of the Endangered Species Act," said Lois Schiffer.
But Nancie Marzulla of the Defenders of Property Rights said: "We believe the Endangered Species Act must also protect the rights of property owners and commercial interests. It can't be viewed as a one-way street."
Lower courts had ruled in the Oregon case that ranchers and irrigation districts claiming economic harm as a result of efforts to protect endangered species did not have the proper legal standing to sue over how the federal law was enforced.