Are states better than the feds at protecting endangered species?

February 03, 2016 | By JONATHAN WOOD

In honor of Groundhog Day, WildEarth Guardians released its annual report card for federal and state management of prairie dogs. Unsurprisingly, the environmental group isn’t too fond of PLF’s victory on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO). Yet it’s judgment of the relative quality of federal and state management suggests that it should reconsider that opposition.

As you’ll likely recall, we obtained a groundbreaking ruling in late 2013, holding that the Commerce Clause does not permit the federal government to criminalize all human action that affects the Utah prairie dog — a species found only in Utah with no appreciable connection to interstate commerce. As a consequence of that decision, the Utah has had exclusive power to manage the species ever since. It has substantially reformed its prairie dog management program, in the hopes of simultaneously protecting property rights and recovering the species. Perhaps the biggest change is that property owners are given an incentive to allow the state to safely and humanely capture prairie dogs on private property, so that they can be moved to conservation areas on state and federal lands. In a brief supporting PETPO in the Tenth Circuit, Utah explained that this plan will “gradually transition prairie dogs from human conflict areas that will never secure their future to preserve areas where they are unconditionally protected from take and can flourish without human interference.”

WildEarth Guardians’ opposition to the case is (slightly) surprising because it grades Utah’s prairie dog management higher than most federal agencies. It awards Utah mostly “A”s and “B”s for its management of the Utah prairie dog. In fact, it appears that WildEarth Guardians’ only criticism of the state’s management has nothing to do with outcomes for the Utah prairie dog. Instead, it faults the state for not restricting private property use and private activity as much as possible.

Prior to the case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was charged with protecting the Utah prairie dog. WildEarth Guardians awards it a “C” for its prairie dog management. Perhaps WildEarth Guardians should reconsider its opposition to the case responsible for transferring prairie dog management from the C-student Service to the more highly-graded Utah.