SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Evan Vickers’ bill SB 230, which secured a one-time $400,000 appropriation to relocate Utah prairie dogs this spring, has helped bring about the largest success yet for private property owners and state wildlife managers regarding the Utah prairie dog.
The latest numbers from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources show that 2,663 Utah prairie dogs were removed from 40 different areas in Southern Utah over the summer and relocated to protected federal land.
Of this, almost 1,500 UPDs were removed from residential/commercial conflict areas, which include subdivisions in Cedar City like Mountain Shadows, Equestrian Pointe, Iron Mountain, Country Meadows and Meadows Ranch/Spring Creek.
Over 1,000 UPDs were removed from agricultural properties. The spring count of the UPDs range-wide was the highest ever at 13,764, spread across Iron, Wayne and Garfield counties.
Vickers was the chief sponsor of SB 230, which was passed in the Utah Legislature in March. The bill made it possible to do two things: pay 14 state wildlife technicians to move the federally-threatened Utah prairie dog off non-federal lands and to pay farmers to delay killing prairie dogs on their land so the Utah Division of Wildlife could trap and relocate them.
In November 2014, the landmark ruling by Federal Judge Dee Benson in Salt Lake City handed the authority back to the state to manage Utah prairie dogs on all non-federal property.
“The first thing I thought when I heard the ruling is, ‘Pinch me,’ Vickers said. “Then it was all systems go to put a viable plan in place to remove both the restrictions and fees for private property owners, as well as remove the actual prairie dogs to federal land.”
Kevin Bunnell is the southern region supervisor for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and took the lead to pull this group together.
“We had to hurry to make it in time to have something ready for the upcoming Utah legislative session,” Bunnell said. “It was particularly important we also had buy-in from all the stakeholders. So the group included Vickers, Rep. Mike Noel and Rep. John Westwood; county commissioners from Wayne, Garfield and Iron; and representatives from Beaver, Kane, Sevier and Piute counties.
“The ruling by Judge Benson cut through a lot of red tape for us. And because of that, we were able to deal with some long-standing issues that hadn’t been addressed.”
One of those issues included removing payments private property owners used to have to make if they had Utah prairie dogs on their land.
“Before the ruling, there was no mechanism (allowed by the federal government) to trap on residential land other than by way of mitigation or the 4(d) safety provision,” said Adam Kavalunas, Utah prairie dog recovery biologist in the southern region of the DWR.
The 4(d) safety provision allows removal where prairie dogs create serious human safety hazards or disturb the sanctity of significant human cultural or human burial sites.
Kavalunas and Jessica Van Woeart, Utah prairie dog wildlife biologist, helped draft the plan with the stakeholders group and presented it to regional wildlife meetings and then to the state wildlife board for final approval.
They began implementation of the approved plan in the spring and summer of 2015.
“Prior to November 2014,” Kavalunas said, “the DWR had to use the Iron County Habitat Conservation Plan for Utah prairie dogs, which required landowners to pay a mitigation fee of $1,000 per acre to develop land where Utah prairie dogs lived.
“It also limited the number of UPDs that could be taken to less than typically 100 animals per year, and surveys had to be conducted on all land parcels within a 1,300 foot buffer zone around all mapped UPD habitat. If Utah prairie dogs were found in the buffer zone, all the rules of the Iron County Habitat Conservation Plan applied there, too.”
And now, Bunnell said, it’s a whole different story.
“The buffer is gone, the fees are gone, the number limits are gone,” he said. “It’s a 180-degree turnaround with the public’s perception, too. Unfortunately, prior to the court ruling, our DWR employees were viewed as the ‘bad guys’ because while the federal government made the rules, we as the state had to carry out their rules.
“The ruling in November, and the bill passed this spring, made it possible for the State of Utah Division of Wildlife to move forward with the Utah Legislature in helping to relocate prairie dogs off of private property, without expense to the property owners and without a lot of the extra difficulty that came with federal mandates.”
SB 230 was one-time money, so for the next Utah legislative session, Vickers will again request funding from the Natural Resources Appropriation Committee to continue the removal and relocation of Utah prairie dogs, along with Utah Gov. Herbert’s office, who also is looking at including in its budget an allocation to help the project continue.
“We have made more ground and have seen more progress this year on this issue than we have over the last 20 years combined,” Vickers said. “This year was unprecedented in our ability to move forward.
“I express the greatest appreciation to the DWR, the county and state elected officials and the other stakeholders for being able to quickly come up with a plan that all could agree on and then implement it with such success. A great win for Southern Utah, for state’s rights and especially for private property rights.”