Environews: March 2018

By Amy Brunvand

Environmental news from around the state and the West.

In the decades to come, one can hope that many of the Trump Administration’s mistakes—on tax policy, say, or trade—will be rectified. But the destruction of the country’s last unspoiled places is a loss that can never be reversed. – Elizabeth Kolbert

U.S. Supreme Court rejects Utah prairie dog case

Utah prairie dogs have fended off an existential threat and will not be going to the Supreme Court after all. The furry, cute and highly social animals were at the center of a lawsuit pitting private property rights against endangered species protection.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reconsider the case which has been moving through the courts since 2013. That means Utah prairie dogs retain federal protection as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act, and retroactive to August 2017 they are managed by federal government rules, not Utah rules.

Utah prairie dogs (Cynomys parvidens) live only in southwest Utah, about 68% of them on private property. They like to dig holes, to the great annoyance of human land owners. The species has been driven to near extinction by the privatization of their habitat since ranchers, who consider them a nuisance, poisoned, shot and trapped them in great numbers. The few remaining large colonies were exterminated by poison in 1971.

When the Endangered Species Act was signed in 1973, Utah prairie dogs were officially listed as an “endangered” with only about 3,300 animals remaining from historical populations of up to 95,000. In 1979, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources petitioned to have them de-listed, and in 1984 they were reclassified as “threatened” with a special rule to allow “taking” (which means killing) up to 5,000 animals annually in order to mitigate antagonism from local ranchers. In 1991 the permitted take was increased to 6,000, but just 12 years later the adult population crashed to about 4,000 adult animals after an outbreak of plague. The special rule could theoretically have wiped out the entire species.

Nonetheless, private-property hard-liners kept trying to completely eliminate protections for prairie dogs. In 2013, a property-rights group with the snarky-sounding name People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO) challenged endangered species listing for the prairie dogs claiming that under the Commerce Clause, the federal government has no constitutional authority to regulate a species that lives only in one state and has no commercial value.

Here’s why the Utah prairie dog case was important beyond just protecting the animals themselves: Nationwide, political conservatives were hoping to use the Utah prairie dog as a wedge to undermine the entire Endangered Species Act.

This property-rights view was supported in amicus briefs by the State of Utah and by various libertarian groups including the CATO Institute. (Amicus curiae briefs, Latin for “friend of the court,” are filed by parties who are not named in the lawsuit but who want to offer information that could affect the judge’s decision.) These briefs essentially said that the State of Utah should be legally allowed to cause the extinction of an in-state endangered species if they chose to do so.

The 2016 Republican Party Platform contains no specific mention of prairie dogs, but it blames the Endangered Species Act for halting construction projects and specifically attacks endangered species designation for gray wolves, lesser prairie chickens and sage grouse.

In 2013, the State and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) sold 800 acres of land in Garfield County to the Nature Conservancy as a safe harbor for prairie dogs even though anti-federal activists opposed the sale for fear that it would increase federal government influence. The Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office makes the disingenuous claim that species recovery for Utah prairie dogs has been underestimated because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not count animals on private land (remember, though, that the State of Utah wants legal authority to exterminate private-land and state-land prairie dogs).

At last count in 2016, Utah prairie dogs numbered around 11,435 animals but only 2,579 lived on public or safe-haven land.

The Trump Administration is threatening to loosen endangered species protections and Donald Trump, Jr. has participated in prairie dog shoots, an inhumane entertainment where animals are shot purely for fun. Utah author Terry Tempest Williams wrote about Utah prairie dogs in her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World (2008).

Breathing Stories

Just in time for the 2018 Utah Legislature General Session, Torrey House Press published a chapbook called Breathing Stories: Utah Voices for Clean Air (see CATALYST, January 2018 for excerpts).

The book features stories, essays and poems that personalize the problem of air pollution on the Wasatch Front. A copy has been delivered to every State legislator. You can read the stories online or buy a copy for $10.

Breathing Stories: torreyhouse.org/breathing-stories


Conservation in the West poll, 2018

Colorado College has released their 8th annual “Conservation in the West” Poll for 2018. The poll asks voters in eight western states including Utah for opinions about conservation, energy, environment and public lands.

The 2018 poll shows that we Utahns love our public lands—91% of Utahns said they had visited public lands during the past year (29% of them more than 10 times) and 81% planned to visit a National Park during the coming year.

However, poll numbers show an odd disconnect between what people say they value and their political opinions. The poll reports that 47% of Utah voters support Trump Administration policies, yet when they were asked about specific policies they were generally opposed: 56% opposed expanding oil and gas drilling; 59% supported the keeping Obama era sage-grouse recovery plans that are currently under attack by the Trump Administration; and 62% opposed uranium mining near Grand Canyon National Park. Likewise, 46% opposed privatizing campgrounds and other facilities on public lands (36% supported the idea; the rest were unsure).

The poll showed a similar disconnect regarding the downsizing of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments. Slightly more voters thought downsizing was bad (49%) versus good (46%). However, 97% agreed that national monuments are “places I want my children and grandchildren to see someday,” and 91% agreed that they are national treasures. 76% of Utahns polled considered themselves conservationists.

How does one reconcile political support for Trump Administration attacks on federal public lands and environmental regulations with the hope that Utah’s national treasures will somehow still be there for our grandchildren?

Conservation in the West Poll, 2018: coloradocollege.edu/stateoftherockies/


Salt Lake City & climate change

If you think it feels warmer than it used to be, you’re right. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that 2017 was the third hottest year since 1880 when record-keeping began.

A slightly different analysis by NASA ranks 2017 as second hottest, but both agencies agree that the hottest year so far has been 2016.

In Salt Lake City, the average 2017 temperature was 56.1º F which was 3.3º above normal. Around the globe the average temperature was 1.51º F above the 20th century average. During the past 100 years, the Earth surface has warmed by about 2º F, which doesn’t sound like much but the Paris Agreement calls to keep global temperatures rise in this century below 3.6º F above pre-industrial levels.


Great Salt Lake toxic dump

In February, a coalition of local environmental groups hosted public meetings regarding a threat to build a garbage dump at the north end of Great Salt Lake. A company called Promontory Point Resources, LLC has applied for a Class V waste permit which would specifically allow the proposed dump to accept out-of-state hazardous waste including coal ash contaminated with arsenic, lead and mercury. Environmental groups opposing the hazardous waste dump include Friends of Great Salt Lake, HEAL Utah, Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.


Trump puts migratory birds at risk

Great Salt Lake migratory birds have less protection after the Trump Administration issued a radical re-interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 that lets industry kill birds without penalty as long as they say they didn’t mean to. A Department of the Interior legal opinion issued in January concludes that the law is limited to hunting and poaching and doesn’t apply to “incidental take.” In other words, if birds happen to get killed by some activity that’s not specifically intended to kill birds, that’s okay.

A statement from the Western Energy Alliance (a pro-industry group) celebrated, commenting that under the narrow interpretation, industrial noise and habitat impacts couldn’t be stopped just because they impact birds.

In fact, the law specifies that it is unlawful to kill birds “by any means whatsoever…at any time or in any manner,” but the memo makes a clear statement that if industrial activities do kill birds, the Trump Administration won’t do anything to stop them.

Bears Ears update

Navajo president Russel Begaye has asked Utah congressman John Curtis (R-UT-3) to withdraw a bill he introduced that would permanently reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument without waiting for the results of lawsuits against downsizing.

In a Salt Lake Tribune editorial, Curtis wrote that his plan was better than the Native American plan, and falsely claimed that he had consulted with tribal leadership when in fact he had not.

This article was originally published on February 28, 2018.