CEDAR CITY – After three years of being free from federal oversight, Iron County is now forced to return to regulations mandated by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the relocation of prairie dogs on private property.
Iron County Commissioners met Tuesday for an emergency meeting to discuss returning to their old habitat conservation plan in the interim while the FWS prepares a separate general conservation plan that will determine how the county deals with the prairie dogs.
Commissioners remain hopeful, however, the rules in the GCP will not resemble those they once operated under for many years.
The county has been acting under state directives since 2014 when a federal judge ruled that the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution doesn’t allow the federal government to regulate animals found on private land in only one state, as is the case with Utah prairie dogs.
The ruling, made by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson in Utah, removed protections provided under the Endangered Species Act and turned the management of the rodent population over to the state.
Benson’s ruling was overturned in April by a three-judge panel on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and confirmed this month when the full judicial body of 18 justices refused to hear the case again. The Denver-based appeals court ruled that the ESA protections should be reinstated.
The group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, filed the initial lawsuit. They have 90 days to file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which the group’s attorney, Matt Munson, said he plans to do.
In the meantime, Iron County will have to return to the regulations under an old HCP while the FWS is preparing a GCP with new federal regulations. The HCP only allows for 61.1 dogs per year to be taken off private property.
“Once the GCP is finished we will then be under the regulations in that document and hopefully it’ll be better than what we had before,” Commissioner Alma Adams said in an earlier interview with Cedar City News. “We do not want to permanently go back to the old HCP that limited the number of take permits we could issue every year. That will hurt Iron County economically if we had to do that.”
Iron County Planner Reed Erickson, who briefed the commissioners about the GCP, said the rules are similar to those required by the state that the county has been operating under.
Unlike the county’s HCP, FWS does not plan to limit the number of take permits per year, Reed said. Rather, the document will provide for property owners to pay a fee for the relocation of the animals off their property to another area.
Commissioner Dale Brinkerhoff echoed Adams’ sentiments, stating he is concerned about going back under federal regulations but believes the state and county have shown they can be successful caring for the protected animal.
“The prairie dogs flourished more under state management than they ever did under the federal program,” Brinkerhoff said. “No one can deny that. We’ve shown what we can do so I think the attitudes have changed and the federal government is more open to following the state.”
Property owners who have already broken ground in development will be grandfathered in under Benson’s ruling and allowed to take the prairie dogs off their property.
For those who have not yet begun development, the new rules will apply, Erickson said.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the commission approved several take permits for various projects throughout the county including roads and construction of homes.
The commission said they are hopeful that the USFWS will be finished with the GCP by next spring when development begins again.
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