U.S. District Court denies effort by state, county officials to weigh in on prairie dog lawsuit

Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspect a Utah prairie dog for disease, location unspecified, Sept. 1, 2009 | Photo courtesy of USFWS via flickr, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITYIn April 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published its 10-year General Conservation Plan for managing the threatened Utah prairie dog in residential and commercial development areas. 

Aug. 2015 file photo: a technician with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources releases a prairie dog at its new colony after it was trucked some 25 miles away from Cedar City, Utah | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News / Cedar City News

Animal-advocacy nonprofit Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit against the federal agency just a few months later, challenging the new plan and the permits it established for killing or translocating prairie dogs on private and state lands.

“Some of our major concerns with this new plan are that it doesn’t offset the amount of prairie dogs that are going to be taken, it’s extremely short sighted and it doesn’t provide specific habitat that needs to be protected,” said Jennifer Best, assistant legal director with the Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program.

In the most recent development of the legal dispute, the U.S. District Court denied a motion by the State of Utah, Iron County and Garfield County to weigh in as amici curiae (legal Latin for “friends of the court”).

The amicus brief filed by state and county officials would have allowed them to offer argument on funding for prairie dog protections and management practices on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On Sept. 28, District Judge David Nuffer ultimately decided that the brief was untimely, prejudicial and of little use.

Friends of Animals celebrated the court’s ruling, calling it a “modest win in an ongoing battle” and an important reminder of the numerous species facing extinction, according to a press release.

When reached by St. George News, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on an active case but referred interested parties to the general conservation plan as well as the 2012 recovery plan.

Utah prairie dog: pariah or pest

As the smallest member of the prairie dog genus, the diminutive Utah prairie dog grows to about a foot in length (including the tail) and 1–3 pounds in weight. What they lack in size, they make up for in overall impact, said Adam Kavalunas, Utah prairie dog recovery biologist.

In this April 2021 file photo, an entrance to a Utah prairie dog burrow is visible on land west of Parowan, Utah | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“They fit the definition of a keystone species,” Kavalunas said. “Prairie dogs keep the soil turned over frequently so it constantly is replenished with nutrients. They’re a prey base for just about everything out there, and their burrows are used as habitats by all sorts of critters.”

However, prairie dogs certainly have their detractors. Their burrows can be a tripping hazard for humans and livestock walking over a colony. They can destroy landscaping in parks and golf courses as well as feed on crops and ornamental plants.

Finally, many citizens, businesses and even municipalities take issue with protections granted to prairie dogs that prohibit or limit development. 

The species once ranged across much of Southern and Central Utah, but decades of human development and active eradication efforts brought the animals to the brink of extinction. With an estimated population of 3,300 prairie dogs in 1972, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources began programs to protect the species and translocate the native rodents to public lands.

In 1973, the prairie dog was listed as an endangered species and granted federal protection. Their partial recovery led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassifying the species as “threatened” in 1984, and programs regulating take – the killing or translocation of prairie dogs – have existed ever since.

April 2021 file photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Adam Kavalunas tallies prairie dogs as part of the annual spring count, Parowan, Utah | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

To track prairie dog populations, counts are undertaken annually by multiple teams of biologists. Since counts are conducted by observing the animals aboveground and prairie dogs typically spend about half their time in the burrow, Kavalunas said the reported counts represent about half the adult population.

Since the 1970s, yearly counts of prairie dogs have trended upwards. An all-time peak of about 13,000 individuals was recorded in 2015, which would correspond to an estimated adult population of 26,000.

The prairie dog population has declined year-over-year since the 2015 peak, with the 2020 count recording just 6,217 individuals. 

Kavalunas said there are more permits issued in high population years to remove prairie dogs on private and state land, but that increased take alone would not account for the sharp decline.

“A host of reasons resulted in numbers coming back down, but I would say climate was probably the number one driver,” he said. “We’ve had five to six years of pretty intense drought, and prairie dogs are a climate sensitive species. They’re not like deer or elk that can walk over to the next canyon and find water somewhere else – prairie dogs are stuck where they are.”

However, animal advocacy groups – including Friends of Animals – claim that there’s more to the continuing decline than natural fluctuation. As part of the legal team challenging the current management practices for Utah prairie dogs, Best said:

I do not doubt that ongoing drought may be impacting prairie dogs and that climate change will likely continue to impact them. This is precisely one of the reasons the current plan is flawed. It fails to take into account how the species is doing and continues to allow the same amount of take regardless of whether the population is suffering from other factors. The counties and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service…should take into account all the other threats that Utah prairie dogs are facing, including changing weather patterns. The existing plan does not do so.

The General Conservation Plan, permits and protests

Though the Utah prairie dog is no longer listed as endangered, it still has certain protections from its “threatened” listing under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The ESA allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a general conservation plan and issue permits for the take of prairie dogs. 

A graphic showing the development area for a population center outlined in the general conservation plan | Image courtesy of USFWS St. George News / Cedar City News

Permits issued under the conservation plan allow for the translocation and even killing of prairie dogs in the course of pursuing “lawful activities,” including building homes, infrastructure or other facilities. Each conservation plan is established relative to an individual species and plan area, and permits are required on both state and private land.

“Without that [plan], people could not build a house if they had a prairie dog on their land,” Kavalunas said. “Without a GCP, human development basically stops, and we realize that’s not a system that really works, especially with our population growing and expanding all the time.”

The 2018 plan established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service replaced a previous management plan, with the new plan directing developers to transfer colonies to public lands where feasible and direct resources to the species recovery. 

However, Friends of Animals brought a lawsuit against the plan shortly after it was published, citing a lack of enforcement for mitigation measures, the poor success of translocation programs and the harm of high take limits as serious flaws in the plan’s framework.

“It’s well known that a lot of the population is on private land and state land, and there needs to be some protection of those animals to support the survival of the species and its recovery,” Best said. “What this plan does is kind of just allow reckless development that doesn’t necessarily provide the habitat necessary for the species to survive.”

According to estimates in the conservation plan, about 90% of translocated prairie dogs do not survive the move. Friends of Animals’ brief points out that translocation isn’t even mandatory, and even when practiced there is little chance of long-term success.

In addition, the plan states that an estimated 7,152 prairie dogs could be killed over a 10-year span, though there is question as to how much of the loss would affect mature prairie dogs versus the pups that already face high mortality rates.

This effect is expressed as compensatory versus additive take – compensatory meaning deaths among individuals that would likely have died at the same time due to natural factors (disease, predation, etc.) and additive referring to loss of prairie dogs that would have otherwise survived into adulthood.

This Aug. 2015  file photo shows prairie dogs in Southern Utah | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News / Cedar City News

While Kavalunas said there is evidence to suggest that many if not most of the prairie dogs lost by permits are an example of compensatory take, Best said that the plan itself does not even claim that most take is compensatory and much more research would be needed to substantiate that claim.

A final decision from the district court is still pending, but recent counts and population estimates clearly indicate that the long-term recovery of the Utah prairie dog may be determined by its management in the next few years. Though the exact cause is disputed, both the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Friends of Animals agree that helping the species survive is worth the effort.

“We’re wildlife managers – our job is to strike a balance between wildlife and humans, so we take a lot more into it than just protecting every animal,” Kavalunas said. “Our goal is not to put more species on the endangered list, our goal is to get as many off as we can.”

Friends of Animals first became involved with the Utah prairie dog following a 2013 legal dispute with Southern Utah property owners. While some locals might not see the species’ redeeming qualities, Best said she has hope that attitudes will change and everyone can gain a greater appreciation for the unique animals.

“I think there is a space for people to live and coexist with Utah prairie dogs and there should be a more and more emphasis on educating people of the value of Utah prairie dogs,” Best said. “I think once people realize the value of Utah prairie dogs, hopefully they would be more willing to coexist with them and develop in a way that’s not going to be detrimental to their existence.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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