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Supreme Court won't hear prairie dog protection suit from Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal from Cedar City residents challenging endangered-species protections for prairie dogs, but the plaintiffs say their case alleging that their community has been overrun by the animals has had an impact.

The lawsuit was a key driver of the new federal plan that would make it easier to remove or kill prairie dogs, lawyers for the residents of the southwestern Utah city said Monday.

Attorney Jonathan Wood said his clients were disappointed the Supreme Court declined to hear the case on Monday, but heartened by the new plan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowing prairie dogs to be killed or removed from private property to public land more frequently.

"That is solely due to the lawsuit and is a far better result for prairie dogs than the decades of conflict generated under heavy-handed federal regulation," Wood said in an email.

Animal activists, though, say the administration's proposed rollback of protections for the threatened Utah prairie dogs would be a death warrant for animals when they're found on private land. They're considered key to the ecosystem because their burrows turn up the soil and can be used as homes by other animals. They're also an important food source for predators.

"I believe that any attempt to transfer more control over to local government hostile toward protection of certain threatened and endangered animals is a bad thing, and can only place more species in peril," attorney Michael Harris with the group Friends of Animals said in an email.

The Utah prairie dog was listed as endangered in the 1970s when their numbers dropped to 2,000 as land was cleared to make room for farming, ranching and housing.

They rebounded under federal protection, and numbered about 26,000 in spring of 2015, according to the state tallies. The numbers have fallen somewhat since then, to about 21,000 animals, though state wildlife managers chalk that up to normal ebbs and flows.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has said its plan will preserve the prairie dog numbers while helping frustrated property owners in Cedar City. Comments are being taken on the plan through Jan. 20.

The Supreme Court's decision ended the long-running federal lawsuit filed by a group calling itself People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners in 2013. They won an unusual court victory when U.S. District Judge Dee Benson struck down endangered-species act protections in 2014, a ruling Wood said was the first of its kind.

The group represented by the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation said federal regulations protecting the creatures blocked residents from doing what they wanted with their own property. The rules forbade doing things that might affect the creatures, including shooting them or moving them or building fences, with few exceptions. They said that led to burrowing creatures moving into playgrounds, cemeteries and backyards.

Activists said the decision threatened to undermine the Endangered Species Act, and an appeals court overturned it this spring. The high court declined to re-consider that decision.