Barking prairie dogs: Why Denver court is entering rodent dispute

Cedar City, Utah, says that federal protections are allowing prairie dogs to take over the town's golf course, airport and cemetery and even interrupt funerals with their barking.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
A prairie dog looks from a artificial burrow made from irrigation piping in August after arriving at the remote site in the desert, some 25 miles away from Cedar City, Utah. State biologists were out this summer rounding up prairie dogs that have overrun a small southern Utah town and moving them where they can’t wreak havoc.

A court battle over a Utah prairie dog ruling that activists say could undermine the Endangered Species Act is set to come before a federal appeals court in Denver on Monday.

U.S. Department of Justice lawyers want a federal appeals court to overturn the decision striking down protections for prairie dogs found primarily in and around the southern Utah town of Cedar City.

The ruling came after residents in the town sued with help from lawyers from the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation. They said federal protections were allowing the small, burrowing animals to take over the town's golf course, airport and cemetery and even interrupt funerals with their barking.

In a finding that lawyers say was the first of its kind, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson decided that the Commerce Clause doesn't allow the federal government to regulate animals found on private land in only one state.

That reasoning hadn't gotten much traction in court before the ruling in November.

The federal government and animal rights groups contend that the ruling was a radical departure from previous court decisions, and it could weaken protections for animals all over the country because most animals listed as endangered species are only found in a single state.

They say states should run protection programs for rare animals instead.

After Benson's decision was handed down in November, Utah wildlife authorities adopted a new plan that has allowed some 2,500 animals to be trapped and move out of town so far this summer, something that had previously been difficult and complicated. The plan also lets residents shoot animals that get too close to houses,

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. With federal protections, they've rebounded to 28,000 as of this spring, according to the state tallies, and have been upgraded to threatened status.

On the other side, 10 states have stepped in to support the decision: Utah, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming and now Michigan.

The battle over prairie dogs has a long history, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2002

Prairie dogs have been the scourge of those who work the land since pioneer times – and their ravaging tunnels are a modern problem across the plains states, from the manicured lawns of Lubbock and the cemeteries of Superior, Colo., to soccer fields in Lincoln, Neb. and cattle ranches in Edgemont, S.D.

What plainsmen have long settled with a .22 and poison, is a lot more complex today– from the web of environmental concerns (endangered species and clean water) to city slicker sentiment (prairie dogs are hot pet-shop item from L.A. to Tokyo).

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