People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners v. Fish and Wildlife Service
People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO) is a nonprofit organization of more than 200 Utah landowners who are subject to federal regulations preventing them from using their property or doing anything that might affect any one of 40,000 Utah prairie dogs that live in the area. Prior to a federal court striking down the regulation as unconstitutional, property owners were forbidden from building homes in residential subdivisions, starting small businesses—the local government could not even protect playgrounds, an airport, or the local cemetery from the disruptive rodent.
PLF filed a lawsuit on PETPO’s behalf, arguing that this federal regulation exceeds the federal government’s constitutional power under the Commerce Clause. It regulates noneconomic activity; there is no interstate market for the Utah prairie dog, which is only found in Utah; and the regulation is unnecessary to the regulation of any interstate commerce. A federal district court struck down the regulation, holding that if the federal government could get away with this “there would be no logical stopping point to congressional power,” contrary to the Constitution’s text and history.
In the wake of that victory, Utah worked with property owners to implement a conservation plan for the species. Under it, state biologists would move prairie dogs from backyards, playgrounds, and other residential areas to government-owned conservation lands, where they could be permanently protected. The difference between federal regulation and state management is stark. The federal regulation pits property owners against prairie dogs, whereas the state enlisted property owners as partners in conservation. Conflict has given way to real conservation.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit brought an end to Utah’s successful conservation program when it reversed the district court and restored the federal regulation. PLF will be asking the Supreme Court to hear PETPO’s case and, ultimately, to preserve Utah’s successful conservation program and restore constitutional limits on federal power.