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The Spectrum & Daily News via AP, Asher Swan
In this undated photo a prairie dog sits in a field in southern Utah. Government attorneys are defending federal protections for Utah prairie dogs after 10 states stepped into the case in favor of a ruling that animal activists say could undermine the Endangered Species Act.

SALT LAKE CITY — Government attorneys are defending federal protections for Utah prairie dogs after 10 states stepped into the case in favor of a ruling that animal activists say could undermine the Endangered Species Act.

U.S. Department of Justice lawyers want a federal appeals court to overturn the unusual decision striking down prairie dog protections near the southern Utah town of Cedar City, about 250 miles south of Salt Lake City.

"The Supreme Court has consistently upheld Congress's authority to prevent interstate competition from causing various harms, including destruction of the natural environment," lawyers wrote in recently filed court documents.

They're asking the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to hear oral arguments in the case. It was originally filed by a group of Cedar City residents who said federal protections were allowing the small, burrowing animals to take over the town's golf course, airport and cemetery and even interrupt funerals with their barking.

Attorney Michael Harris with Friends of Animals countered Thursday that those claims are overblown, and property rights can co-exist with animal protections.

Jonathan Wood, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, disagrees. He represented the Cedar City residents and argued that the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause doesn't allow the federal government to protect animals only found within a single state on private property.

That reasoning hadn't gotten much traction in court before the ruling from U.S. District Judge Dee Benson last year. He struck down federal protections for Utah prairie dogs in a decision animal-rights groups called a radical departure from 40 years of animal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The ruling could have wide-ranging effects because most protected animals in the U.S. are only found in one state. If it's upheld on appeal, the case could bring the Endangered Species Act before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ten states have entered the case to support Benson's decision: Utah, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming and now Michigan, which weighed in earlier this month.

They say states should run protection programs for rare animals instead.

After Benson's decision was handed down in November, Utah wildlife authorities adopted a new plan that allows the roughly 6,000 prairie dogs to be moved off private land or killed. While the new state regulations are similar to the federal rules, state officials say they allow more of the animals to be removed from private property.

Utah prairie dog numbers dwindled to about 2,000 in the 1970s as they were targeted by ranchers and farmers who believed the animals competed with livestock and crops, according to court papers. The species' numbers have rebounded significantly since coming under federal protection, though the majority live on private land.