Feds seeking to reduce protection of endangered prairie dogs in Cedar City

Stock photo of prairie dog, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — 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 Cedar City, where residents say they’re overrun by the creatures.

In this Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, a prairie dog nibbles on a bit of zucchini at its new colony after being trucked some 25 miles away from Cedar City, Utah. | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

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 Cedar City, where people 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.

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 officials 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, however, 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.

Written by LINDSAY WHITEHURST, Associated Press

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • comments December 20, 2017 at 6:33 pm

    “Cedar City, where residents say they’re overrun by the creatures”

    Overrun, huh. All the drug addicts, dealers, child molesters and other assorted criminals floating around in good ol’ Cedar, and they choose to whine about the prairie dogs. I’d add LDS mormons to the list of things that Cedar is overrun by, just for good measure.

    • Kyle L. December 20, 2017 at 8:13 pm

      Comments: Just because you are used to being around other rodents doesn’t mean the rest of us want them in our back yards. We have friends and BBQ’s. We like our backyards to look nice for company. You wouldn’t understand, I’m sure, because you would have to come out of your mamma’s basement to make friends. That’s never going to happen.

      • comments December 20, 2017 at 10:57 pm

        Hey idiot, if they’re in ur backyard do what you want. Maybe u scared ur neighbors gonna call the EPA on your whiny lil self

    • Badshitzoo December 21, 2017 at 2:37 pm

      This is all nonsense. There are few if any Prairie Dogs in backyards. Everyone in town knows exactly where these things are at: They did do significant damage to the nine hole Cedar Ridge golf course over time; and someone killed 250 of them on the course all in one weekend some years back. Personally, I love the little guys, but it is what it is; and if there are substantial investments at stake …. something will have to change: whatever that may mean?

  • jaltair December 21, 2017 at 12:13 am

    ” ‘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 …”

    I believe UT can manage prarie dogs. The attorney assumes all are unable to discern conservation needs without regulation. A lot of education regarding how species become endangered since the 1970’s regulation was implemented has negated the need for regulation. The fewer federal regulation less money is wasted. This is a reason to have review of federal regulations and which ones could be discontinued.

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