The white-tailed prairie dog will not be declared an endangered or threatened species after the U.S. government deemed on Tuesday there was no danger despite declines in its population from human development and disease.
The decision was a victory for energy companies and ranchers who could have seen increased restrictions on lands that are open to oil and gas development and livestock grazing.
Environmentalists more than a decade ago petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide Endangered Species Act protection to white-tailed prairie dogs, found only in Western states.
Years of legal wrangling ensued, and in 2014 the Fish and Wildlife Service was ordered by a U.S. judge in Montana to correct gaps in a review of threats posed to the rodents, which build elaborate burrows in parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and Utah.
In the finding released on Tuesday, federal wildlife managers said their assessment of habitat destruction, poisoning, recreational shooting and other stressors affecting white-tailed prairie dogs, named for their white-tipped tails, showed the creatures to be resilient.
"The white-tailed prairie dog is not currently in danger of extinction and is not likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future," the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement.
Prairie dogs now occupy just a fraction of the land where they historically made their underground homes, said Matthew Sandler, attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild, a party to the petition to officially protect the animals.
"It's hard to know if the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision is based on the best available science or a political decision to put economic benefits above the environment," he added.
U.S. wildlife managers on Tuesday disputed Sandler's assertions, saying that data show that white-tailed prairie dogs have declined in number but not in distribution. Agency spokesman Ryan Moehring also emphasized that its assessment of the animal "is based on the best-available scientific and commercial information."
White-tailed prairie dogs are said to be less social than the other types of North American prairie dogs, all of which give warning "barks" when predators or other intruders are near.
White-tailed prairie dogs are mostly found at altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 feet (1,500 to 3,050 meters) in desert shrub or grasslands and must eat enough vegetation in mild seasons to survive months of winter hibernation, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.