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Utah Prairie Dog Court Victory

Federal Government Must Reconsider Upgraded Protections

Denver, CO—Sept 29. A federal court decided yesterday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) must reconsider its 2007 decision rejecting a higher level of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for Utah prairie dogs. U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said the agency needed to address why an 87 percent reduction in the prairie dog’s range and an array of threats were not a sufficient basis to upgrade it to endangered status.

“This decision could breathe new life into efforts to recover the Utah prairie dog. If listed as endangered, the Utah prairie dog would see an end to their continued poor treatment, including federally authorized killing,” stated Nicole Rosmarino, WildEarth Guardians’ Wildlife Program Director. “The Service itself has treated this imperiled and ecologically important animal as a nuisance, so it’s no wonder the Utah prairie dog is struggling.”

The ruling was in response to a 2003 petition by WildEarth Guardians requesting the Service reclassify the Utah prairie dog as endangered, the highest possible level under the Endangered Species Act. When the agency denied Guardians’ petition in 2007, the group sued.

In her decision, Judge Kollar-Kotelly found that “FWS failed to explain why the reduction in the species' historical range did not indicate that reclassification may be warranted”; “FWS failed to consider the cumulative effect of the ESA's listing factors”; and therefore remanded the 2007 rejection of Guardians’ reclassification petition back to the Service.

Only approximately 12,000 adult Utah prairie dogs are alive today from a population that once numbered close to 100,000. They are beseiged by an array of threats, including a Service special rule that allows up to 6,000 Utah prairie dogs to be shot every year; rampant destruction of their habitat by livestock grazing, crop agriculture, and urban sprawl; illegal poisoning and shooting; drought; and other perils.

Scientists consider prairie dogs to be “keystone” species. Prairie dogs serve as prey for a large variety of carnivores including golden eagles, kit foxes, ferruginous hawks, and badgers. Prairie dog burrows provide homes to animals such as burrowing owls, lizards, rabbits, and other wildlife. From big mammals to small butterflies, more than 150 wildlife species benefit from the rich habitat prairie dog colonies create.

WildEarth Guardians is a west-wide conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife, wild rivers, and wild places. The group is celebrating the International Year of Biodiversity, of which it is a partner. During this year, through the United Nations, “The world is invited to take action in 2010 to safeguard the variety of life on earth: biodiversity.”


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