SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - U.S. Department of Justice lawyers are appealing a court ruling striking down federal protections for the Utah prairie dog, a decision that animal rights activists say threatens to undermine the Endangered Species Act.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson in November sided with property owners who claimed federal rules protecting the threatened species allowed prairie dogs to overrun the town of Cedar City.
The property owners claimed that small, burrowing animals have damaged the southern Utah town’s golf course, airport and cemetery and even interrupted funerals with their barking.
In court papers filed earlier this month, lawyers for the group Defenders of Wildlife called the ruling radical.
“Despite 40 years of successful federal wildlife protection under the ESA for species great and small, the court below held for the first time that the U.S. Constitution does not permit Congress to protect wildlife on private land,” attorneys wrote. “This dangerously narrow view has no constitutional basis.”
The Utah landowners filed suit with the help of the Sacramento, California-based Pacific Legal Foundation. Attorney Jonathan Wood argued that because the Utah prairie dog is found only within the state, federal authorities shouldn’t be able to regulate it on private property.
That argument hadn’t gotten much traction in other courts before Benson’s decision. Wood said Friday that if the appeals court upholds the ruling, it could bring the Endangered Species Act before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s something the 10th Circuit has never addressed, that the U.S. Supreme Court has never addressed,” he said.
But Department of Justice attorneys counter in court papers that about 70 percent of all federally protected species live only in a single state like the Utah prairie dog and courts have long upheld the federal government’s ability to regulate them.
Utah prairie dog numbers dwindled to about 2,000 in the 1970s as they were targeted by ranchers and farmers who believed the animals competed with livestock and crops, according to court papers. The species’ numbers have rebounded significantly since coming under federal protection, though the majority live on private land.
After Benson’s decision was handed down in November, Utah wildlife authorities adopted a new plan that allows the roughly 6,000 prairie dogs to be moved off private land or killed. That plan is set to become final on May 8.
Wildlife biologist Keith Day said the new state regulations are similar to the federal rules, though they allow more of the animals to be removed. If Benson’s decision is overturned, the rules would likely change again.
“This ruling by this judge allowed us a little more flexibility to take them off private property and go ahead and place them back on public land,” he said, though he said the ruling doesn’t mean that the animals can be killed with impunity.
“We want people to realize that Utah prairie dogs are still under protection, and we don’t want them to run afoul of the law,” Day said.
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.