- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A federal judge is weighing a lawsuit from Cedar City residents who say prairie dogs are overrunning parts of their town and want federal protections for the animals rolled back.

The group argued in a hearing Thursday that the prairie dogs have damaged the southern Utah town’s golf course, airport and cemetery, even interrupting funerals with their barking.

“The problem is, this regulation is so unreasonable and it’s done by the wrong level of government,” said Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Sacramento-based, property rights-oriented Pacific Legal Foundation. “It should be dealt with by the local government.”

Wood said the case wouldn’t have implications for other protected species beyond the 40,000 prairie dogs around the southwestern Utah town.

The Utah prairie dog is classified as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. People can apply for a permit to drive the creatures from private property, but Wood said the process is too onerous.

An attorney with the group Friends of Animals said prairie dogs are a valuable species that needs federal protection. “This is one of the most unique animals on earth. Their level of skill and communication is on par only with dolphins and humans,” Michael Harris said.

Federal attorney Mary Hollingsworth the prairie-dog protections are part of a larger system of protections under the Endangered Species Act.

No deadline was immediately set for U.S. District Judge Dee Benson to rule in the case.

Resident Matt Munson said that he’s seen 100 prairie dogs move into a half-acre empty lot within days in his neighborhood, and the creatures often burrow under the airport runway.

“Eventually someone is going to crash their airplane because it’s bumpy,” said Munson, part of the group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners.

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