SALT LAKE CITY — Federal wildlife managers under the Trump administration are loosening contentious endangered-species protections for Utah prairie dogs, which worries animal advocates but relieves people in southern Utah who say their town was overrun by the burrowing creatures.
The new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rules finalized Thursday make it easier to remove or kill prairie dogs if they're in the way of homes and businesses. The 10-year plan will preserve the species listed as threatened while still allowing for economic development.
The group Friends of Animals said Friday it's examining the new plan, after previously warning that loosening the protections could be a death warrant for the animals. The prairie dogs are 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.
The changes come after property owners in Cedar City said in a lawsuit that decades-old regulations designed to protect the animals allowed them overrun playgrounds, cemeteries and backyards. The rules forbade doing things that might affect the creatures, including shooting them, moving them or building fences, with few exceptions.
The group calling itself People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners won an unusual court victory in 2014 when U.S. District Judge Dee Benson struck down endangered-species act protections because the animals are only found in one state.
Though the group lost the case on appeal, they cheered the new regulations when a draft plan was released in December. The final version is largely the same, Kate Miyamoto said with Fish and Wildlife.
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 in the area near Cedar City.
They rebounded under federal protection, and numbered about 26,000 in spring 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.