Prairie dog endangered-species plan eases rules under Trump

FILE - This Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, shows prairie dogs, in southern Utah. Southern Utah residents who say federal safeguards for the Utah prairie dog prevent them from doing what they want with their property are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case. Attorneys for residents in Cedar City said in a Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, court filing that an appeals court February decision to strip Utah state officials of control of the burrowing critters amounts to "untrammeled federal intrusion." (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Salt Lake City • Wildlife managers under the Trump administration are moving to loosen endangered-species protections for Utah prairie dogs, flipping the script in a long-running conflict over federal policies in a town where residents say they’re overrun by the creatures.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan would allow prairie dogs to be killed or removed from private property more often, relaxing regulations designed to protect the species.

The agency said Wednesday that the plan will preserve the prairie-dog numbers while helping people in the southern Utah town of Cedar City. People there have long chafed under Endangered Species Act protections they said went too far, allowing the burrowing creatures to overrun their playgrounds, cemeteries and backyards.

Animal activists, though, contend the rollback would essentially be a “death warrant” for the creatures classified as threatened and considered key to the ecosystem. The new conservation plan is up for public comment for the next 30 days.

It’s a role reversal for the two sides: Activists have fought alongside the federal government to keep tight protections and fend off a lawsuit from the property owners in Cedar City.

The town is located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the Grand Staircase Escalate National Monument, which President Donald Trump ordered cut in half in early December along with a big reduction to the Bears Ears monument. The move was bemoaned by Native American tribes and environmentalists but celebrated by Utah leaders who said the monuments amounted to federal overreach.

Critics of the prairie dog protections likewise contend the federal rules are suffocating, and a group calling itself People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners went to court to challenge them in 2013.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ruled in their favor in an unusual decision that found the Endangered Species Act didn’t hold sway because the species is found only in Utah.

The decision put prairie dog management in state hands, and they set to work trapping prairie dogs on private property and moving them to public lands. The number of trapped dogs peaked at about 2,600 in 2015, and dwindled to just over 1,000 this year.

Animal-rights groups, though, said Benson’s decision could undermine the Endangered Species Act because most rare animals are only found within one state.

They appealed the ruling, along with the federal government, and this spring the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed it. That put prairie-dog control back with the federal government, but under the revised plan activists worry it could hurt prairie dog populations and set a bad precedent for endangered species.

“Any attempt to transfer more control over to local government hostile toward protection of certain threatened and endangered animals is a bad thing, and can only place more species in peril,” attorney Michael Harris with the group Friends of Animals said in an email.

The Utah prairie dog was listed as endangered in the 1970s when their numbers dropped to 2,000 as land was cleared to make room for farming, ranching and housing.

They rebounded under federal protection, and numbered about 26,000 in spring of 2015, according to the state tallies. The numbers have fallen somewhat since then, to about 21,000 animals, though state wildlife managers chalk that up to normal ebbs and flows.

Laura Romin with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Utah said the prairie dog population has been holding strong. She said the proposed changes that have been in the works for two years are aimed at keeping it growing while easing conflicts with people.

Cedar City property owners are hopeful. Spokesman Derek Morton said the eased regulations under the state improved the relationship between locals and wildlife managers.

“The biggest thing is we felt as were talking to people that just didn’t understand,” he said. Their lawsuit, meanwhile, is still active after the property owners appealed to the Supreme Court backed by 23 states. The new conservation plan isn’t expected to directly affect their appeal.