By Tom James
(Reuters) - Prairie dogs in Utah won a turf battle against property developers on Wednesday when a U.S. appeals court reinstated restrictions on development in areas inhabited by the threatened animals.
Environmentalists praised the three-judge appeals court panel's decision overturning an earlier ruling and protecting the foot-long rodents, which property rights activists say threaten farm animals and development with their massive underground colonies.
“This is huge, not only for the prairie dog but for the Endangered Species Act,” Michael Harris, legal director for Friends of Animals, a conservation group involved in the case, said in a phone interview Wednesday.
The plaintiffs in the case, People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, had argued that the federal government did not have authority over a species that existed only in one state.
They said that while they acknowledge the importance of the species, known to build vast underground networks of tunnels, which have been found under cemeteries and golf courses, they would ask for a review of the panel’s decision by the full court.
"Let it be on the prairie, let it be on [federal] land away from the developments,” Brett Taylor, the group’s vice president, told Reuters.
Distinguished by a black “eyebrow” marking over each eye, Utah prairie dogs numbered about 95,000 around 1920, but by 1972 their population had fallen to about 3,300 due to disease and people killing them.
The extremely social species was declared endangered the following year, but after its numbers grew again it was reclassified as threatened. Populations remain precariously low, according to the National Park Service.
Wednesday’s ruling affirmed the existing standard of allowing the federal government to limit local development using the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law intended to protect species at risk of extinction.
In the majority opinion, Judge Jerome Holmes wrote that overturning the earlier ruling was in line with actions by previous circuit courts, which have ruled uniformly to protect the Endangered Species Act in similar cases.
(Reporting by Tom James in Seattle; Editing by Patrick Enright and Andrew Hay)