OPINION – Like most acts of government, the Endangered Species Act was created out of the best of intentions. Like many other well-intentioned acts of government it has, over time, become an instrument for abuse.
Few people understand this better than the residents of Iron County whose property rights have taken a backseat to the Utah prairie dog since it was first listed over 40 years ago. Even when the prairie dog was upgraded to “threatened” status, the economic costs have been considerable.
For decades, private land owners have been held hostage by a small rodent that prevents them from developing their land and which can only be removed under the most costly and arduous government oversight. If a landowner discovered prairie dogs on his or her property, there was little they could do – including selling their now nonproductive land.
The indirect costs to the community in lost opportunities would likely amount to tens of millions of dollars. But even those costs pale in comparison with the ones that can be accurately measured.
In working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and state wildlife biologists, Iron County has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan that would meet the demands of the Endangered Species Act. The county hired Cardno Entrix, an environment consulting company, to help create a habitat plan for managing the prairie dog population.
Based upon the recommendations of Cardno Entrix and biologists and bureaucrats for the various government agencies involved, the plan would take another 30 years and upwards of $100 million to complete. Remember, this is in addition to the 40 years which had already transpired.
David Miller was present at the Utah Prairie Dog Implementation Program meeting when this was announced. At this time, Miller was not yet an Iron County commissioner.
As he looked around the room and surveyed the 30-40 faces attending the meeting, Miller had a sudden realization, he said, that he was seeing the same faces attending virtually every meeting concerning the prairie dog issue.
On a hunch, Miller stood up and asked that every person who was there in some official state or federal capacity please raise their hands. All but four people in the room raised their hands. Everyone else was actually on the clock and being paid by the taxpayers to be there.
This was a turning point in the prairie dog issue in Iron County as people suddenly recognized how bureaucracies and environmental special interest groups were using the Endangered Species Act to accrue personal power and profit.
It was a perfect illustration of how prairie dog protection had become job security for the agencies involved in its enforcement. It was also a watershed moment that galvanized a grassroots effort to push back.
Among the four individuals who were there, on their own dime, as private citizens were Miller, Brett Taylor, and Matt Munson. These men were among the core members of the group PETPO, which stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners.
Instead of waiting for elected leaders in Washington D.C. or Salt Lake City to take up their cause, PETPO stepped up to challenge the rigorous rules that were being used to deny the rights of Iron County property owners in the name of protecting prairie dogs.
Their efforts attracted the attention of the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation; a legal aid organization that specializes in property rights cases. PLF filed suit last year in federal court arguing that the regulations being imposed on Iron County property owners were not a legitimate exercise of federal government power.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson agreed and ruled that the U.S. government could not claim authority to regulate a species that resides solely within a single state under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The shock waves of a federal judge going on record to affirm that the feds had exceeded their legitimate authority in this matter are still reverberating.
Though the ruling only removes the restrictions that prevent the killing, capture, or “takes” of this particular prairie dog species on state or private land, it is a step in the right direction to repair the damage incurred when the division of powers between federal, state, and local officials is ignored.
READ MORE: Court stops federal agency interference in Utah prairie dog issues on state, private lands
Given how much money and power is at stake for the agencies and environmental special interests involved, the ruling is almost certainly headed to appeal. In the meantime, however, property owners in Iron County who have previously had to apply for permits to mitigate prairie dogs on their land are no longer under the federal restriction.
State wildlife officials remain intent on making land owners seek their permission.
Benson’s ruling will not lead to a wholesale massacre of the Utah prairie dog but it may lead to a long-overdue correction in the balance between local, state, and federal power.
That bodes well for humans and prairie dogs alike.
- Court stops federal agency interference in Utah prairie dog issues on state, private lands
- Stewart’s Endangered Species Act designed to protect species from extinction – Sept 2014
- Cedar Ridge Golf Course prairie dog fence project resumes
- City Council discusses prairie dog fencing, water fee waiver
- Property owners sue federal government over prairie dogs
- DWR: No prairie dog shooting after April 1 – 2013
- Letter to the Editor: Utah prairie dog conservation requires collaboration, not conflict
- Revised rule allows for additional taking of prairie dogs – 2012
- Prairie dogs a threat? Utah Congressional Delegation asks Congress to act – 2011
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and opinion writer in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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