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Federal wildlife officials on Monday said the Utah prairie dog doesn't warrant stronger protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
While state officials praised the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because they say it provides flexibility to farmers and developers, environmentalists were disappointed that an animal they see as critical to the ecosystem can still be shot and killed.
The wildlife service concluded there was insufficient scientific data in an environmental petition filed by Santa Fe, N.M.-based WildEarth Guardians seeking to reclassify the animal from threatened to endangered. The agency found the information failed to show factors such as habitat loss, illegal shooting and disease were endangering the species' survival.
"This is a positive decision from our view," said John Harja, director of the Public Lands Policy Coordination Office for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. "It allows the state a lot of flexibility."
He said because agriculture remains exempt, farmers can continue to work their fields without worrying about harassing the rodents.
Nicole Rosmarino, WildEarth's wildlife program director, said the species needs the added protections to ensure its long-term survival.
"This species is critically important to the ecosystem, and its recovery has faltered over the past years. Fish and Wildlife should be pulling out all the stops to protect it," Rosmarino said.
The law allowed for the removal of up to 6,000 prairie dogs per year. A decision earlier this month established a sublimit, capping the number that can be killed at 10 percent of their estimated population.
"It was a step forward but really a baby step when you think of what needs to be done for this species," Rosmarino said.
WildEarth officials say there are just up to 12,000 adult prairie dogs in the wild in Utah, down from about 95,000 in the 1920s.