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Utah and Gunnison's Prairie Dogs Deserve Timely Federal Protection
Washington, DC—In the past four weeks Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew appeals of two federal court rulings striking down denials of protections for prairie dogs. WildEarth Guardians, which obtained the court victories, applauds the withdrawal of these appeals as an important step in government reforms in endangered species protection.
“Hopefully this means that Interior will follow the letter and spirit of the Endangered Species Act by providing appropriate protections for these beleaguered key species,” said Taylor Jones, Endangered Species Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “The courts have been clear that Interior needs to heed science, not political pressure, when making listing decisions. It’s time to stop trying to dodge granting protections by making up new rules in the middle of the game.”
In fall of 2010, a DC federal court judge struck down the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2007 decision to deny upgraded protections for the Utah prairie dog (The Service is the agency through which the Interior Secretary has delegated Endangered Species Act authority). The court noted that the Service failed to explain why an 87 percent reduction in the Utah prairie dog’s range and an array of threats were not sufficient reasons to upgrade it to endangered status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Around the same time, a federal court judge in Arizona decided that the Service violated the law when it found that only those Gunnison’s prairie dogs located in montane habitat warranted ESA listing and those in lower-elevation prairie habitat did not. The government lost on the same legal point in Montana on August 5, 2010, over the delisting of gray wolves in all Northern Rockies states except Wyoming. The delisting of those wolves, though deemed illegal by the court, was Congressionally reinstated by a rider on the recent budget, opening the door to other attempts at politically motivated listing decisions. But the mandate of the ESA has not changed, and the withdrawal of these appeals reinforces the law’s guidelines.
By withdrawing these appeals, the Service is fulfilling the withdrawal of a Bush Era solicitor’s memo that attempted to rewrite the guidelines for what could or couldn’t be listed under the ESA. Contrary to that memo, the ESA gives the Service only three choices: 1) list a species; 2) list a subspecies; or 3) list a Distinct Population Segment of a vertebrate species. The ESA requires the Service to list a species if it is endangered or threatened in all or a significant part of its range.
“The Service had already determined that the Gunnison’s prairie dog is threatened in a significant portion of its range, which means it should be listed range-wide,” said Jones. “The Service has already acknowledged that the Gunnison’s prairie dog needs protection; it needs to be listed promptly so that the Endangered Species Act can bring this ecologically vital animal back from the brink.”
Listing species under the Endangered Species Act has proven very effective in preventing species extinction. Over 99 percent of plants and animals listed under the act persist today. Scientists estimate that 227 species would have gone extinct if not for ESA listing. Listed species also benefit from the development of federally funded recovery plans and critical habitat, if designated.