One of the great triumphs of the so-called environmental movement was the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1969. But in the subsequent decades, the ESA has done more to inhibit economic activity, undermine local conservation efforts, and commandeer private property, than it has done to protect endangered species.
Few understand this better than the citizens of southwest Utah.
In 1974, the federal government listed the Utah prairie dog as an endangered species under the ESA, granting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulatory control over all land containing Utah prairie dog habitat, much of which is found in and around Cedar City.
The prairie dog population boomed as a result of their new protected status, which made it illegal – punishable by hefty fines and even jail time – to harass, harm, hunt, wound, kill, or trap the Utah prairie dog.
The species was later reclassified to "threatened," but the federal government continued enforcing its harsh penalties. And so the prairie dogs continued to multiply under the armed guardianship of Fish and Wildlife agents. The population was recently estimated to exceed 40,000.
While the prairie dogs have never had it so good, the consequences of their proliferation have been devastating. to the residents of southwest Utah.
In Cedar City the prairie dogs' burrows and tunnels have left virtually every corner of the community damaged or degraded. Meanwhile, federal regulations have prevented residents from pursuing sensible conservation strategies that balance the needs of the community and the rights of property owners with their shared commitment to protecting endangered species.
For local officials, this is the great irony of the Endangered Species Act: noble intentions notwithstanding, the law has produced worse environmental outcomes than could be achieved through local control.
"The ESA is built on the pretense that bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. know more – and care more – about environmental and land conservation than the residents who live in these communities," said Iron County Commissioner David Miller. "The people of southwest Utah are living proof that in fact the opposite is true."
The federal government has defended its ESA regulatory regime by appealing to the Constitution's interstate commerce clause. But even this can't withstand scrutiny – largely because the Utah prairie dog, as its name implies, is not an interstate species.
Last November, a U.S. District Court in Utah upheld a challenge to the federal government's authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate the habitat of the Utah prairie dog. This decision – the first of its kind in a federal court – was a welcome development, but for local officials, it is not a permanent solution.
"The people of Utah deserve clarity from their government," said Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson. "As the legal cases work their way through the courts, Congress has an obligation to reform the Endangered Species Act so that Utahns can regain control over the conservation efforts in their own communities."
I agree with Commissioner Iverson. That's why I recently introduced in the Senate, along with Sen. ator Orrin Hatch, the Native Species Protection Act, which would clarify that the federal government has no regulatory jurisdiction over a single-state species.
This is a commonsense reform that would limit the damage caused by federal mismanagement of protected species, while empowering state and local officials to pursue sensible conservation plans with their communities.