Prairie dogs a threat? Utah Congressional Delegation asks Congress to act

A prairie dog living under the Cedar City offices front steps. | Photo by Robyn Utley Ekker

WASHINGTON D.C. – Members of Utah’s Congressional Delegation joined together today to introduce legislation before the Congress to address damage that is being done by prairie dogs.

Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, and Representatives Jim Matheson, Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, introduced the Protecting Public Safety and Sacred Sites from the Utah Prairie Dog Act, which will permit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take what the Delegation professes to be much-needed steps to protect Utahans from the hazards posed to public safety from prairie dogs.

Currently, the Fish and Wildlife Service is permitted to remove prairie dogs only from agricultural areas. However, the Utah delegation maintains that the animals have done extensive damage to areas not designated as agricultural, such as the Parowan Airport’s runway and the Paragonah Cemetery in Iron County.

Prairie dogs are burrowing rodents and there are several species of them.  The Utah Prairie Dog is, according to the National Park Service’s website for Bryce Canyon, limited to the southwestern quarter of Utah and has the most restricted range of all the prairie dog species. The website describes them as:

“… among the most social of animals. They live together in large groups called colonies or towns. Most colonies have numerous burrows with a network of entrances allowing easy retreats but also quick escape. While burrows are a refuge from hawks, golden eagles, and coyotes, they can be a dangerous place when hungry badgers, weasels and rattlesnakes come to the colony. Therefore it is critical for a colony to post lookouts [that] take turns constantly searching for and identifying types of danger. When danger is detected, the lookouts bark to warn the colony.”

The NPS website goes on to state:

“Although not as numerous as other kinds of prairie dogs, Utah Prairie Dogs numbered 95,000 animals in the 1920s. By the 1960s, populations had crashed due to poisoning and other reduction methods. Disease (bubonic plague) and drought also caused decline. By 1972, it was estimated that only 3,300 Utah Prairie Dogs remained and loss of suitable habitat was predicted to result in the species’ extinction by the year 2000.

“In 1973, the Utah Prairie Dog was listed as an endangered species on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife List of Threatened and Endangered Species. “Conservation strategies included reintroducing them to Bryce Canyon National Park. Today nearly 200 animals live in the park, and comprise the largest protected population of Utah Prairie Dogs. In 1992, prairie dogs were trapped within the park, and transported to the Awapa Plateau to establish another viable colony. Recent successes have caused the Utah Prairie Dog status to be down listed from endangered to threatened. However, populations still remain precariously low. It is hoped that more reintroduction’s within the protection of Bryce Canyon’s boundaries will help get the species off the Endangered Species list altogether.”

That said, the legislation introduced by the Utah delegation today grants the Fish and Wildlife Service the ability to remove prairie dogs from airports and cemeteries that are located within a certain range.

The legislation is the product of cooperation between the delegation, the City of Paragonah, the City of Parowan, the Iron County Commission, the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Those senators and representatives participating in the delegation each made statements:

“Just this August, I met with Iron County officials and saw firsthand the damage prairie dogs have caused across the county,” said Hatch. “The county’s hands were tied in dealing with this problem, and this bill will ensure that the proper resources are dedicated to addressing this public safety concern. I’m pleased the delegation has been able to quickly come together and introduce this meaningful legislation to protect the safety and sanctity of sites across our state.”

Lee said, “While protecting the Paragonah cemetery and Parowan airport are important, this issue goes beyond the desecration at one burial site or the public safety hazard of one airport.  The very rules that surround the protection of certain species are outdated, unfair, and have disastrous consequences.  They have [a disproportionately] negative effect on the economies of states like Utah, which have large segments of federally owned land, and often violate basic property rights.  This legislation is a small, important step toward properly managing the prairie dog population in Southern Utah, but much work remains to be done on this issue.”

“I have heard consistent reports from Iron County officials, including during my recent visit, about their frustration over efforts to manage prairie dogs at the cemetery and the airport,” said Matheson. “Together with the other members of the Utah delegation, I am working to address Iron County’s public health and safety concerns.”

Chaffetz said, “The Endangered Species Act is indefensible in this situation. Utah prairie dogs should not be elevated above the health and welfare of Utah citizens. I promise to use whatever means necessary to stop bureaucrats or environmentalist who care more about prairie dogs than people.”

“The policies initially intended to regulate and manage the Utah Prairie Dog population have become woefully outdated and are creating a costly and dangerous situation for the state and counties,” said Bishop. “It is unfair that Utah must shoulder the costly burden of these irrelevant policies that no longer reflect the needs of the state.  It is far too common these days that policies created by Washington bureaucrats are causing more harm than good- the issue regarding the Utah Prairie Dog is no exception.   I am glad to be a part of the delegation efforts to limit the federal government’s ability to impose and enforce policies that are not in the interest of our state.”

In a preliminary posting to this story, St. George News asked its Facebook readers for comments.  Considerable response was received, and the following are a few that represent the diversity of thought on the matter:

Ron Rodriguez: Having resided in Iron county for about 13 years, I had to deal with the prairie dog problems on my rural property. I lived on 20 agricultural zoned acres. I was not a farmer nor a rancher, but I did derive some income by leasing out acreage for livestock (horses, cattle and sheep). These critters can and do damage vast amounts of land in real short time, creating burrows and dens that are a danger to livestock. Livestock can and do suffer limb injuries which can be very costly and/or result in death. Aside from injuring livestock, these critters also cause extreme hardship on landowners who wish to develope their property. Federal legislation prohibits development of personal property. Zoning variances are difficult to obtain therefore stifling development. And these are just a few “big deals” that are cause for concern to many in Iron County.

Sue Reynolds: I think they are cute. They actually help with the natural grasses on prairies by fertilizing and re-seeding them. When they were all killed in the mid west the grasses didn’t grow and the some of the buffalo died off. They were here first. I miss seeing them in the fields on the way to Cedar … Cattle do more destruction than a prairie dog! The prairie dogs occupy only 1% of the land than what they did a century ago. They help other animals like the burrowing owls, black footed ferrets and more. A lot of people believe they are just pests but they are an important part of the eco system! Do a little research on these animals!

Robyn Utley Ekker: … often they move in long after the land was purchased. Take the case of the Parowan cemetary and airport. Those have both been there for generations, but only in the last several years have prairie dogs moved in an started wreaking havoc. Something needs to change. I’m not saying they should be totally unprotected if they really are endangered, but some sense has to be used. This is a pervasive species that has caused much damage throughout Iron County.

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