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Environmentalists sue to protect prairie dog

September 23, 2008 | 10:30 am

From the Associated Press:

SALT LAKE CITY -- An environmental group is suing the federal government to gain more protections for the Utah prairie dog. WildEarth Guardians of Sante Fe, N.M., says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong in deciding last year not to change the classification of the animals from “threatened” to “endangered.” Get_me_a_lawyer_4

The “endangered” status would provide additional protections along with restrictions on development in prairie dog habitat. The group says it would also end a special rule allowing up to 6,000 prairie dogs to be shot each year.

The lawsuit was filed last week in federal court in Washington, D.C. Federal officials on Monday said they couldn’t comment on a pending lawsuit. The number of Utah prairie dogs in the southwest corner of the state in the 1920s was estimated at around 95,000, according to federal officials.

Aggressive control programs, along with habitat loss, plague, poisoning and other factors drove down the population. When it was listed as an endangered species in 1973, biologists estimated there were about 3,300 left. Today, there are around 10,000 Utah prairie dogs. About 68% live on private or nonfederal land -- a fact that has caused friction with those wanting to develop property in southern Utah.


In 1984, the animals were reclassified from “endangered” to “threatened.” That decision was based on a request from state officials in Utah, said Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director with WildEarth Guardians, a group with about 4,500 members. “It was a political deal,” she said. “We are trying to right that wrong.”

Several groups in 2003 sought to have the “endangered” classification reinstated. In February 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service denied that petition to increase protections for the prairie dog, saying there wasn’t enough evidence submitted to warrant the change.

In that same decision, though, the agency decided to initiate a routine review of the population to see if current protections are adequate. If the prairie dog needs to be reclassified, a formal process would begin, said Diane Katzenberger, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver. She expects the review to be finished in about six months.

Photo credit: Doug Loneman / Associated Press

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