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A federal appeals court ruling essentially reinstates protections for the imperiled Utah prairie dog.
Wednesday's 10th Circuit decision was a reversal for property rights activists who had persuaded U.S. District Judge Dee Benson that these federal rules infringed on private property. Benson found the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's prohibitions against prairie dog "take" that is, killing or harassing the pesky burrowing rodents that live only in Utah were not authorized under the Constitution's Commerce Clause allowing for the regulation of interstate commerce.
But a three-judge panel disagreed, saying bans on the unauthorized destruction of threatened or endangered wildlife is a "cornerstone" of the Endangered Species Act.
"Congress had a rational basis to believe that regulation of the take of the Utah prairie dog on nonfederal land is an essential part of the ESA's broader regulatory scheme, which, in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce," wrote Judge Jerome Holmes.
The Republican appointee noted that since 68 percent of species on the endangered list exist entirely within a single state's borders, denying protections on this basis would "severely undercut the ESA's conservation purposes."
The range of the Utah prairie dog is limited to southwestern Utah, where 70 percent of its occupied range is on nonfederal land. These animals' burrows damage air strips, agricultural equipment, golf courses and cemeteries, so they are considered a pest. But those burrows also provide ecological services by aerating soil, and prairie dogs are a food source for raptors.
Federal rules limit where prairie dogs can be killed to agricultural fields, property within a half-mile of conservation land and "areas where Utah prairie dogs create serious human safety hazards or disturb the sanctity of significant human cultural or burial sites." The rules also limit the number of animals killed and the methods used to kill them.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, a Utah landowner group whose name riffs on that of a controversial animal-rights group, sued the federal government, alleging they "have been prevented from building homes, starting small businesses and, in the case of the local government, from protecting recreational facilities, a municipal airport and the local cemetery from the Utah prairie dog's maleffects."
Wednesday's ruling came as a relief to several environmental and animal-welfare groups.
"We hope this decision finally puts these preposterous arguments to bed. Extreme right-wing organizations like the one that brought this case believe we should be able to drive species to extinction, pollute our air and water and wreck the climate, regardless of the harms to their fellow citizens or future generations," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.