CEDAR CITY — Cedar City and a group of its residents are seething with frustration over the damage inflicted to their property by the Utah prairie dog and are striking back with a federal lawsuit.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City on Thursday, asserting the U.S. Department of Interior has overstepped its constitutional authority by regulating what happens to the animal on privately owned property — not just land owned by the federal government.
"These animals are a pest, and the federal government has no interest being involved in their regulation except on their own property," argued attorney Jonathan Wood of the Pacific Legal Foundation.
"Cedar City is a community under siege by a proliferation of prairie dogs and by federal regulations that prohibit reasonable measures to control the prairie dog population," Wood said. "The town has been inundated with prairie dogs that are leaving parks, gardens, vacant lots, the golf course and even the local cemetery pockmarked with burrows and tunnels."
The organization was retained by the newly formed People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, which consists of property owners who claim they have been injured monetarily and emotionally by the rodent, which is considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
In the lawsuit, the damage incurred at the municipal airport, the city's golf course and cemetery is laid out in detail.
The Pacific Legal Foundation is a donor-supported watchdog organization that litigates for limited government, property rights and a "balanced" approach to environmental regulations.
Among its species-regulation cases, the foundation won a federal court ruling that removed the bald eagle from the Endangered Species List. It also prevailed in a case against the Environmental Protection Agency that said landowners can challenge wetlands compliance orders.
Among its allegations, the city said it has been forced to:
- Fence off dangerous areas on sports fields because of burrows and holes that present a safety hazard.
- Replace chewed-up wiring for irrigation systems at the golf course and repair landscaping equipment damaged by burrows to the tune of about $12,000 annually.
- Spent $325,000 to comply with a federal habitat plan for the species at the airport, rather than being able to invest that money in badly needed improvements. It also bought a $4,000 piece of equipment to grade and level mounds and ruts caused by the animals.
Beyond the damage caused at cemetery grave sites, the suit asserts the prairie dog inflicts emotional harm to patrons of the cemetery.
"The city wishes to operate a cemetery that is a pleasant and peaceful place of reflection for people visiting the remains of their deceased loved ones. … The Utah prairie dog threatens the peaceful operation of the cemetery and the sanctity of the grave sites," the suit says. "Recently, a funeral service was interrupted by a prairie dog that scampered around the service and began barking loudly and incessantly."
The lawsuit also details an investment for retirement that was rendered a financial flop because the Utah prairie dog moved into the property.
Any attempt by Bruce Hughes and his partners to develop the 3.4 acres of land was rejected — including the issuance of a permit — because the animals occupy the property, the suit asserts.
Although regulations allow Iron County to permit 72 "takes" per year — which means to kill or trap the animals — there were more than 70 property owners on the list, according to the complaint.
A taking is limited to 10 per year, which does not provide any solution for the partnership because of the large number of animals that have moved in, the suit said.
"The members of this group have been severely harmed by these regulations," Wood said.
The suit attacks the Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for constitutional overreach by specifically instituting regulations that impact the prairie dog on private property.
Because the federal government gets these specific powers to regulate activity in states via the Commerce Clause, the suit contends the agency is acting beyond its authority.
"No enumerated power supports the regulation of the take of the Utah prairie dog on non-federal land," the suit asserts, stressing that control of the animal does not substantially affect interstate commerce.