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Utah Prairie Dogs at the Center of Endangered Species Battle

A Utah Prairie Dog at the Parowan Airport
Alicia Geesman
A Utah Prairie Dog at the Parowan Airport

By Dan Bammes

Paragonah, UT – The Utah Prairie Dog is listed as a threatened species under federal law, but if you ask some people in Iron County, it's not nearly threatened enough. They'd like to see the animals disappear, especially from the airport in Parowan and the cemetery in Paragonah. There's a new proposal to take that protection away - and critics think it's a new attack on the Endangered Species Act as well as the prairie dogs.

Jeff Rice recorded prairie dogs chattering in Bryce Canyon National Park, where the population is growing and people enjoy seeing them. But in Paragoonah, 25 miles north of Cedar City, Mayor Connie Robinson drives around with a stuffed prairie dog on her dashboard. It has a target on the front and back. She's been trying for years to get rid of the critters in the city cemetery, where they dig their tunnels through the grass and even into graves.
Robinson sees the ongoing battle with the prairie dogs as a sign her community isn't getting the respect it deserves. "How would Arlington Cemetery accept something like this? They wouldn't," she says. "They'd get right on it, wouldn't they? And yet, every flagpole you see here's a veteran. And we don't get the same acknowledgement that we're important."
Robinson met with other local officials and Congressional staffers at the Paragoonah cemetery in August, and that produced a bill that's been introduced both in the U-S House and the Senate. It's called the Protecting Public Safety and Sacred Sites from the Utah Prairie Dog Act of 2011, and it has the backing of all five members of Utah's Congressional delegation.
It points out another area where the Utah Prairie Dog is unwelcome - the Parowan airport. Parowan airport manager Dave Norwood points out places where prairie dogs have dug burrows under and through the asphalt on the runway and the tarmac. He's worried a plane landing at the airport could catch a wheel in one of the spots where the pavement has collapsed on top of a burrow.
He also points out areas where the prairie dogs threaten the electrical cables for the runway lights. "You can see, if you see the burrow extending out right here. That's where he's dug under there and the aircraft have pushed it down inside."
The F-A-A, the U-S Fish and Wildlife Service and the city of Parowan are preparing to spend almost 400-thousand dollars to build an underground fence to protect the runway.
That may be unnecessary if the bill passes Congress. It would allow the city to shoot or poison prairie dogs that remain on the property.
But the critters may not be the only target. Critics say they're also part of a broader effort to weaken the Endangered Species Act and its protection for unpopular animals in the West.
"Our organization sees this move as part of a larger pattern," says Taylor Jones, the endangered species advocate for Wild Earth Guardians, which has been working to protect prairie dogs across the West. "Congressional members have sought to weaken the ESA for a decade and longer and that may have escalated in the last six months or so. It started with Republicans and Democrats delisting wolves in the northern Rockies by a controversial Congressional rider on a spending bill, and since then there have been several efforts to Congressionally prevent other species."
Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson represents Iron County, and he's met frequently with county officials on the issue. That's one reason he says the Endangered Species Act is due for reform. "It's been around for decades and Congress has never really taken a look at it," he says."And there's no question that in its implementation there are inefficiencies and there are things we've learned over the last few decades about the Endangered Species Act that, in my opinion, warrant us taking a look at how to make it work better."
Republican Senator Mike Lee says the prairie dog issue is typical of what happens when federal agencies exercise too much authority. "These are far from the only problems that have arisen under the Endangered Species Act, or even under the protection of the Utah Prairie Dog. So I would not expect this to be the last, the only effort I undertake in this area."
The agency caught in the middle of this debate is the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. It's been responsible for implementing the federal management plan for the prairie dogs, and it's spent about 85-thousand dollars a year trapping them and moving them to safer places like Bryce Canyon National Park.
Doug Messerle, the southern region supervisor for DWR, says the Congressional action could have unintended consequences, such as ending the species' eligibility for federal money to mitigate the impacts caused by prairie dog colonies. "I presume that if they're no longer a threatened species that they won't be eligible for endangered species mitigation fund money or Fish & Wildlife Service Section 6 money," he says. That's the money being used to build the fence at the Paragonah cemetery and the underground fence around the airport.
Messerle thinks a better idea is a revision of something called Rule 4-D. The current version allows farmers to kill prairie dogs raiding their alfalfa fields.
Laura Romin with the U-S Fish and Wildlife Service says a proposed revision would extend that to sensitive places like the Parowan airport and the Paragoonah cemetery. She says public comment on the revision focused on eliminating the prairie dogs from sensitive sites. "One of the big things that we're trying to work on now with the airport and the cemetery is getting fencing to keep the prairie dogs out of the area where we don't want them," says Romin. "Then we can move the prairie dogs out and they won't come back in."
But there's no deadline for issuing the revised rule, and Paragoonah Mayor Connie Robinson is skeptical about the fences. She'd like to see Congress simply bypass the Endangered Species Act in her cemetery. And she says that's the general feeling of people in Iron County. "It's not so much the dogs, it's just the way it's being enforced and on their property. And I know a lot of people kill em. And I can't blame em."
In the meantime, the prairie dogs of southern Utah keep an eye out for hawks, unaware that Congress may pose a greater danger to them than anything they can spot when they poke their heads out of their burrows.
The bill called the Protecting Public Safety and Sacred Sites from the Utah Prairie Dog Act of 2011 has been introduced in both the House and the Senate and assigned to committees, but no hearing dates have been set.

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