The suit charges that Fish and Wildlife biologists were forced by Deputy Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald, a Bush administration appointee, to change a finding that the prairie dog is endangered to one that instead said it does not meet the scientific criteria necessitating federal protection.
The Gunnison's prairie dog is found in the Southwest, including southern Utah. But a combination of disease, extermination efforts and urban growth have conspired to reduce the species' overall population to what biologists consider to be dangerously low levels.
A set of e-mails obtained by the New Mexico-based environmental group Forest Guardians showed the Gunnison's prairie dog apparently headed for listing under the Endangered Species Act last January. But under orders from MacDonald, the decision was reversed.
"The Gunnison's prairie dog was on track to clear the first hurdle for endangered species protection, but with the stroke of Julie MacDonald's pen, was denied the chance at protection," Forest Guardians biologist Nicole Rosmarino said in a statement.
MacDonald has been under fire since last month, when documents obtained by conservation groups revealed numerous instances in which MacDonald, a civil engineer by profession, disregarded Fish and Wildlife staff recommendations and reversed or altered findings on a variety of species - including the white-tailed prairie dog and the Gunnison sage grouse, which also are found in Utah.
Critics contend that MacDonald's interference in the scientific assessments of species is another example of the Bush administration's penchant for allowing special interests to guide environmental policies.
"Field biologists and good science have been rolled repeatedly by Bush anti-conservation politics from D.C.," said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Tucson-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Gunnison's prairie dogs need Endangered Species Act protection now so they can survive. Meddling Julie MacDonald should be removed."