Utah residents sue to reclaim property rights from prairie dogs

Michael Bastasch | Energy Editor

Attorneys representing property owners in Cedar City, Utah filed a lawsuit Thursday arguing that the federal government has overstepped its constitutional bounds by preventing residents from defending their property against a massive prairie dog infestation.

“The federal government doesn’t have the authority to regulate a local issue like the Utah prairie dog under the commerce clause or any other power,” Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jonathan Wood, who is representing Cedar City residents free of charge, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The government simply overreached.”

The lawsuit takes aim at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule that prevents landowners from taking action against prairie dogs that infest their property. The government applied anti-“taking” rules under the Endangered Species Act to the Utah prairie dog, meaning landowners can be fined or even imprisoned if they try to deal with the animals without first asking the government for permission.

“Before the rule was adopted it was possible for all private property to get permission to remove the prairie dog,” Wood said. “The new regulation changed the rules so they promote a lot of private property impossible to do anything. If prairie dogs are there, you basically have to accept it and basically abandon your property.”

“It’s impossible to actually cure the problem if your land has become burdened with the prairie dog,” he added.

PLF argues that the federal government has overstepped its authority under the commerce clause, which allows the federal government to regulate activities that affect the national economy. However, the Utah prairie dog is only located in one state and not involved in any commercial activity.

“So the argument that this has to be regulated under the commerce clause is a little silly,” said Wood. “The theory of our case is that the federal government’s role is only to protect the animal when its on public property, but this regulation regulates private property and that’s beyond the federal government’s power.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners is a coalition of Cedar City residents who have been affected by the federal restrictions on dealing with prairie dog infestations. The Utah prairie dog is one of five prairie dog species in North America, and is found only in Utah. The animal digs burrows and networks of tunnels which can damage people’s properties.

According to the FWS, there are estimated to be more than 40,000 Utah prairie dogs, and the animal is listed as “threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act.

The prairie dogs have done extensive damage to Cedar City, including digging mounds and creating runway hazards at the regional airport, digging tunnels among graves and destroying flowers at the Cedar City cemetery.

The infestation has affected Brenda Webster and her son Daniel who have trouble visiting her husband’s grave site because prairie dogs have dug up the earth around it, leaving ruts and mounds. Prairie dogs have also disturbed funeral ceremonies with their barking.

Cedar City small business owner Bruce Hughes bought several acres as a retirement investment, but prairie dogs moved into his property.

“Federal officials said I would have to go through a regulatory process that would have taken 42 years, before I could hope to do anything on the property,” Hughes said. “Later, I was told that if I paid $34,000, I could do away with the prairie dogs. But if I didn’t pay, and I killed one prairie dog, it would be a $10,000 fine and five years in federal prison.”

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