A change in federal policy that would allow the removal and killing of thousands of threatened Utah prairie dogs imperils the species to appease a relentless local drive for development, Friends of Animals asserts in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Utah.

FoA’s lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service challenges the agency’s April 2018 decision to rollback previous habitat conservation plans and mitigation methods established to protect the prairie dogs, which were declared an endangered species in 1973 after their population dropped to a few thousand.

More than 7,000 prairie dogs could be removed or killed over a 10-year period under the new FWS plan, plus an additional 15,000 independent of development, totaling more than a quarter of the entire population. Between 350-1,750 acres of their habitat would be lost as well.

The plan also fails to consider the impact that the killing or relocating will have on the connectivity of the prairie dog habitat and there is no indication there is even sufficient and suitable land to translocate the prairie dogs, FoA said in the complaint. Even if moved, 90 percent of prairie dogs will not survive past their first year in the new location and two-thirds of new sites fail completely.

“Most every move federal wildlife managers in the Trump administration take derails protections for threatened wildlife such as prairie dogs,’’ said Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral. “They neglect to see the moral and scientific value of seeing these social, intelligent animals as a benefit to western grassland ecosystems, or worthy of our affection and protection. We’re not about to give anyone a green light to drive these animals to extinction.”

Prairie dogs, which are found only in North America and are social animals, play a significant role in the biological diversity of ecosystems. They fertilize and aerate soil, reducing noxious weeds and help create more nutrient-rich grass for other animals. Reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates inhabit prairie dog borrows and prairie dogs are a food source for predators. In fact, more than 100 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. But humans have continually pushed into their ecosystem, targeting their population for extinction through poison, shooting and habitat destruction. And despite ESA protections, local officials and property developers have continued to try to push for less restrictions from the federal government to get rid of the species.

In 1999, prairie dogs were identified as one of six species worldwide most likely to become extinct in the 21st Century by biologist Niles Eldredge in his “A Field Guide to the Sixth Extinction.”
FWS’s new plan comes despite a federal appeals court victory in 2017 by Friends of Animals. In that decision the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a state district court decision that gave Utah the right to override ESA protections with its own management plan that threatened the survival of prairie dogs.

Now, catering to the interests of developers, FWS has devised a new plan that authorizes unlimited removal and killing of prairie dogs across the entire range of their habitat and allows developers to translocate the dogs only when deemed feasible.

FWS’s new plan violates the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the agency to carefully consider a wide range of alternatives and to vigorously examine the environmental impacts of alternatives, FoA alleges.

“Any progress that has been made to save Utah prairie dogs after decades of poisoning and other indiscriminate killing is lost with this plan, which contains no real measures to protect these intelligent and valuable animals,’’ said Jennifer Best, assistant legal director of Friends of Animals’ Wildlife Law Program. “With this lawsuit, Friends of Animals will continue to fight to have science and the inherent value of animals considered by the federal government before it authorizes the plundering and killing of threatened and endangered species.”