Denver, Colo.—Today, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 2014 decision by a federal district judge in Utah that sought to strip the Utah prairie dog of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Judge Dee Benson had ruled that Congress exceeded its authority under the U.S. Constitution when it authorized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prohibit the killing or harassment of Utah prairie dogs on public lands. The federal district court had adopted a species-by-species approach, arguing that the federal government had to first demonstrate that a species had value in interstate commerce before it could protect the species under the ESA.
The Tenth Circuit, agreeing with other federal courts, rejected this species-specific approach.
“This is a huge victory for Utah prairie dogs and the ESA,” says Michael Harris, director of Friends of Animals’ Wildlife Law Program. Friends of Animals (FoA) immediately intervened in a 2013 lawsuit brought by People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO) challenging the USFWS’ decision to list the Utah prairie dog as a threatened species, as it restricted what landowners can do in regards to managing the species on private land.
In today’s opinion, authored by Judge Jerome Holmes, the Court of Appeals concluded that under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, Congress can extend protection to any species, regardless of its specific commercial value, because such regulation “is an essential part of a broader regulatory scheme that substantially affects interstate commerce.”
Indeed, as the court made clear, in passing the ESA, Congress specifically sought to both place a “short-term” brake on human economic activity that threatened the existence of species like the Utah prairie dog and to promote “long-term” sustainable commerce by conserving individual species and their habitats.
“On display in this case is an ongoing, fundamental dispute over the value of America’s natural heritage,” Harris says. “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.”
“The reality is that the Utah prairie dog, like many other animals, is worthy of protection from human destruction because they are unique individuals capable of living meaningful lives,” says Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “These are some of the most intelligent, social animals in the world. Moreover, the Utah prairie dogs’ value in maintaining the health of western grassland ecosystems is immeasurable.”
In addition to protecting the Utah prairie dog, the Tenth Circuit today also prevents the ESA from a lingering death at the hands of anti-wildlife, pro-property activists like the plaintiffs in this case.
“While PETPO asserts it is only trying to reduce regulation of Utah prairie dogs on their private lands, the reality is that PETPO and their allies’ true agenda is to blow a massive hole through the ESA,” states Harris. “If the lower court’s decision was left in place, protections of more than a third of all threatened and endangered species in the United States would have been in jeopardy.”