Call it the ultimate underdog, a critically endangered, native keystone species that Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program has been fighting to protect for years, and in so doing, winning battles that will help save other endangered species as well.
The Utah prairie dog is the smallest type of prairie dog, a highly intelligent, highly social member of the squirrel family that lives only on the sagebrush steppes of southwestern Utah. The state’s unique prairie dog colonies began to decline when eradication efforts by farmers and ranchers ramped up a century ago, and by the 1960s populations crashed because of poisoning, nonnative plague disease and habitat destruction.
By the early 1970s, the Utah prairie dog had been eliminated from major portions of its historical range and had declined to an estimated 3,300 individuals distributed among just 37 colonies, says the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged with protecting the species. The Utah prairie dog was listed as endangered on June 4, 1973.
By the 1980s, Utah prairie dog populations had rebounded enough for FWS to reclassify them from endangered to merely threatened and to permit up to 6,000 animals to be killed a year if they could be shown to cause damage to irrigated agriculture or pasture lands. Efforts also began to relocate colonies from private property – where 70 percent of the prairie dog population now occurs – to areas on public lands where the prairie dogs once lived.
FoA’s legal team first stepped in on behalf of the Utah prairie dog in 2013, challenging a frivolous attack by an anti-environmental, pro-property rights group that claimed protecting the prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act infringed on their constitutional rights. Representing property owners in Cedar City who wanted to be rid of “an out-of-control pest,” the People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO) argued that because the Utah prairie dog species lived only in Utah, federal laws did not apply.
After a state district court decision gave the state of Utah the right to override federal ESA protections, in 2017 FoA’s Wildlife Law Program successfully argued in defense of both the Endangered Species Act and the embattled Utah prairie dog.
“On display in this case is an ongoing, fundamental dispute over the value of America’s natural heritage,” said Michael Harris, WLP director. “On one side, a minority of private property owners and some state governments appear to view members of the animal kingdom as being valueless and unworthy of protection unless they can be reduced to mere ‘commodities.’ Accordingly, in their view, if an animal cannot be sold or traded, then it is no more than a mere pest to be eradicated to make way for human development.
“On the other side, Friends of Animals, numerous scientists and millions of Americans recognize that protection of all members of the North American biota—from the smallest fungi to the greatest of mammals—is essential to biodiversity and to human economic health. If the lower court’s decision had been left in place, protections of more than a third of all threatened and endangered species in the United States would have been in jeopardy.”
Friends of Animals once again came to the Utah prairie dog’s defense when the FWS, catering to the interests of local developers, devised a new plan that authorized the removal and killing of Utah prairie dogs across the entire range of their habitat and allowed developers to translocate the dogs only when deemed feasible.
FoA challenged the agency’s April 2018 decision, which could have led to the killing or removal of more than 7,000 prairie dogs over a 10-year period, plus an additional 15,000 independent of development, totaling more than a quarter of the entire population. Ninety percent of prairie dogs do not survive past their first year in a new location and two-thirds of new sites fail completely.
Friends of Animals is still waiting for the Court to issue a final decision, however it awarded FoA and the Utah prairie dogs a recent victory. On Sept. 28, the Court denied the State of Utah’s request to intervene in the case in order to give FWS the upper hand in its bid to kill more prairie dogs.
Despite ESA protections, the Utah prairie dog population has been in a downward trajectory. The Friends of Animals case is critical to reverse this trend and to support the survival and recovery of these complex and important creatures.
The five species of prairie dogs play a significant role in the biological diversity of North American ecosystems. They fertilize and aerate soil, reduce noxious weeds and help create more nutrient-rich grass for other animals. More than 100 other native species benefit directly from prairie dog habitats, including bison, antelope, mice, burrowing owls and predators such as golden eagles, rattlesnakes, bobcats, badgers, coyotes, foxes and ferrets.
“Our modest win in this ongoing battle to protect this one species is an important reminder in light of the recent news that nearly two dozen animal and plant species are now to be declared officially extinct. Like the Utah prairie dog, most of these now-gone species lived in small, fragmented communities, and all perished because of human-caused harm. That’s why we fight to save the Utah prairie dog, because when they win, all endangered species win,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals.