Drew Crane, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP
This undated file photo from by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows prairie dogs.

WASHINGTON — The legal and political fallout from a late fall ruling on the Utah prairie dog is starting to gather momentum, promising a contentious fight over the extent of Endangered Species protections.

A Tuesday discussion on the decision out of U.S. District Court for Utah was hosted in part by the Pacific Legal Foundation, the nonprofit legal watchdog group that took on the federal government over the asserted "overreach" of the Endangered Species Act and, at least for this round, won.

At the crowded lunchtime event at the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, renewed their calls to reform the Endangered Species Act.

"There are real environmental benefits to protecting endangered species from extinction, but the federal law intended to establish such protections — the Endangered Species Act — is in serious need of reform," he added later in a prepared statement.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said the federal government cannot use the commerce clause to regulate threatened species if that species is only found in one state. The Utah prairie dog is only found in Utah. Benson said the government shouldn't be allowed to regulate it on private property.

Jonathan Wood, who argued the case for the Pacific Legal Foundation representing landowners in Iron County, said Benson's ruling is significant because it is the first time the court has imposed restrictions on the Endangered Species Act.

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had argued it had authority to extend restrictions to private property under the commerce clause, Benson rejected that premise and countered that the Utah prairie dog has little if any bearing on the "economic scheme" of the Endangered Species Act.

"If you accept the federal government's argument, you have to accept the fact that the federal government can regulate whatever it wants," Wood said after the discussion.

Environmental groups — including the Defenders of Wildlife that took part in Tuesday's discussion — argue that the ruling undermines the Endangered Species Act and represents an unconstitutional and radical departure from 40 years of case law.

“Congress rationally designed the ESA to preserve not just species with known economic value but the entire diversity of life, the untapped resources, the unknown values that are part of our natural heritage for present and future generations," said Jason Rylander, an attorney at Defenders of Wildlife.

Rylander was skeptical of efforts to modify the Endangered Species Act, an act that he credits, along with other signature environmental legislation from the 1970s, with accomplishing significant environmental improvements.

Federal officials, too, have pointed out that more than two-thirds of the species that receive endangered species protections are found only in one state, so the ruling eviscerates the congressional act.

The U.S. Department of Justice has appealed Benson's ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Utah and eight other states have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the matter, which could be heard as early as this fall.

Wood said it is likely the case will go on to the U.S. Supreme Court, regardless of which side prevails.

Lee's legislation, the Native Species Protection Act, seeks to make Benson's ruling the law of the land, regardless of the case's outcome.

"This is a common sense reform that would limit the damage caused by federal mismanagement of protected species and their habitats, while empowering state and local officials to pursue sensible conservation plans with their communities,” Lee said.

Utah prairie dog numbers stand at about 2,000, sharply reduced since the 1970s based on a variety of threats, including farming, ranching, disease and predation.

The animal's colonies have created nightmares for both government entities and private property owners in Iron County, in particular, because of damage to golf courses, airports, cemeteries and subdivisions.

A 2012 administrative decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibited any harm to the animal or its habitat, even if it involved private property. That decision led to the lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, which was presented by the foundation.

Contributing: Paul Edwards

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