Protected Utah prairie dogs fight for home on the range

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For years, residents of Cedar City, Utah, have been waging a losing battle against an infestation of prairie dogs, mainly because the critters have better attorneys.

The Utah prairie dog isn’t exactly on the brink of extinction the state is home to an estimated 40,000 but the rodent is protected under the Endangered Species Act. Unfettered by pest-control efforts, the prairie dogs have dug up a cemetery, an airport landing strip, a golf course and untold hundreds of lawns.

Fed up, Cedar City property owners are taking their case to court. The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit last week against the Interior Department challenging federal regulations that restrict removal of the prairie dogs.

“The prairie dogs are kind of hated right now, and it shouldn’t be that way,” said Derek Morton, spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, a local organization riffing off the name of a well-known animal rights group. “We know they play a role in the ecosystem, but because the federal government has failed to take action, they’re causing a lot of angst.”

Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jonathan Wood said residents of southwestern Utah are “held hostage to a species that has become an out-of-control pest.”

“The town has been inundated with prairie dogs that are leaving parks, gardens, vacant lots, the golf course, and even the local cemetery, pockmarked with burrows and tunnels,” Mr. Wood said in a statement. “Development projects are blocked by federal prairie dog protections. And public health is imperiled because prairie dogs which are rodents, after all can be carriers of disease.”

The Utah prairie dog, one of five U.S. prairie dog species, numbered just 3,300 when it was listed as endangered in 1973. The Fish and Wildlife Service reduced its status to threatened in 1984, but the rodent’s numbers have exploded since then in Iron County with no movement on the regulatory end.

One problem is that the prairie dog has taken a shine to suburban life. Before it can be delisted, the varmint must meet certain population goals on federal land, but the sociable creatures prefer the manicured lawns and golf courses of suburbia to the untamed wilderness.

Federal biologists have attempted to relocate thousands to nearby public land, while the locals have moved to exhaust nonlethal remedies by erecting fences around the airport and cemetery.

So far, the 3-pound rodents aren’t cooperating.

“They thrive in our subdivisions because there are no predators,” Mr. Morton said. “You can’t blame the prairie dog it’s doing what nature expects it to do. But Fish and Wildlife says there’s no legal framework to move them off private land.”

Indeed, anyone convicted of killing a prairie dog faces a five-year jail sentence and fines up to $40,000. “We’d have better luck robbing a bank in terms of getting mercy from the court,” Mr. Morton said.

Taylor Jones, an endangered-species advocate for WildEarth Guardians, said the group supports nonlethal mitigation efforts, but worries about the potential for overkill if local authorities are placed in charge of managing the critters.

“I wouldn’t call it an infestation,” Ms. Jones said. “The prairie dogs were there first, and inhabited the Great Plains long before any city was built up. That’s their ancestral home.”

The property owners argue in their lawsuit that the federal government has overstepped its authority by attempting to manage the Utah prairie dog. Found in only one state, the species has no value in interstate commerce, which means it falls outside the federal government’s reach under the Commerce Clause, according to the filing.

The Utah Legislature approved a resolution last year calling on the federal government to hand over management of the prairie dog to the county government.

Without such action, the Utah prairie dog could soon outnumber the 50,000 residents of Iron County. Last week’s news conference at a Cedar City park to announce the lawsuit was attended by about 100 locals, and a few uninvited guests.

“At our press conference, you had about 10 prairie dogs right there,” Mr. Morton said. “They were just sitting there and watching us.”

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