PERC Reports: Winter 2017

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Photo courtesy of Bob Wick/BLM.

What if federal regulations designed to protect endangered species actually hindered state-led efforts to enhance their recovery? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what is happening in Utah, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations are preventing states from taking actions to protect the threatened Utah prairie dog.

The Endangered Species Act has long pitted property owners in southwestern Utah against the prairie dogs. As Jonathan Wood writes (page 12), federal regulations broadly prohibit any activity that affects a single member of the species, even on private property. The result is that residents are prevented from doing basic activities such as building homes, starting small businesses, or making use of community parks, playgrounds, and cemeteries.

But the laws don’t just limit activities on private lands—in some cases they also prevent the very actions that could help recover the species. As Wood describes, the regulations have prohibited state biologists from relocating prairie dogs from residential areas to local conservation lands where their chances of survival would be improved.

The unfortunate reality is that the Endangered Species Act turns threatened species into liabilities for private landowners, who are vital to their recovery. It’s no surprise, then, that less than 2 percent of federally listed species have been recovered.

 In southwest Utah, the community is fighting back. A local group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, is challenging the federal government’s authority to impose such heavy-handed regulations over a species that is only found in one state, and therefore is not related to interstate commerce.

PERC recently filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court urging the court to review the constitutionality of the federal government’s regulation of the Utah prairie dog. It argues that the Endangered Species Act’s punitive regulatory approach “discourages states and private parties from engaging in innovative species recovery efforts” and describes how the principles of federalism—if allowed to operate—can lead to more effective species recovery.

The Utah prairie dog case, like many other environmental issues, illustrates how federal policies often have perverse effects that undermine the very goals they aim to promote. This issue explores several other examples—from wildfire policy (page 8) to public land stewardship (page 24)—including much more. We hope you enjoy it.

This article is from the most recent issue of PERC Reports. Click here to read the full issue online.

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Shawn Regan is a research fellow at PERC and the director of outreach and publications. He holds a M.S. in Applied Economics from Montana State University and degrees in economics and environmental science from Berry College. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, High Country News,...
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