Prairie dog credits buy conservation easements

Feb 10, 2012

Some western and Midwestern states are resorting to innovative measures to control prairie dogs that wreak havoc wherever they proliferate and voraciously devour vast expanses of grasslands, depriving grazing livestock of feed and boosting costs for ranchers.

Their colonies can damage fields and pastures by leaving hundreds of mounds and tunneled holes wherever they dwell.

Some call them ground squirrels, but Bruce Hughes, a certified public accountant in Cedar City, UT, prefers to refer to the prairie dogs that have dug up bones at a pioneer cemetery and ruined airport property in southern Utah as “vermin.” Three species of prairie dogs live in Utah.

A new Utah Prairie Dog Habitat Credit Exchange and Safe Harbor program allows developers and property owners to buy credits for up to 40 acres. The money will be used to buy conservation easements from farmers and ranchers to protect land inhabited by prairie dogs.

Hughes says government bureaucracy has compounded the problem by frustrating attempts on the part of private property owners in five Utah counties to protect their investments and manage tens of thousands of the pesky critters. Over the years, he has attended numerous meetings, which have proven to be exercises in futility.

The new Utah program still penalizes property owners financially for prairie dog mitigation, Hughes said. It allows developers to pay $1,000 per acre to have the animals relocated to a protected preserve, but they still cannot be intentionally killed.

“Government programs are taking private property owners and putting them on the front line, firing bullets at us with our own ammo in our own guns,” Hughes told the Western Livestock Journal (WLJ).

His involvement in dealing with prairie dogs started when he confronted Iron County commissioners about paying taxes on property he could not develop because of an infestation of the burrowing rodents, which have been protected under federal threatened species regulations.

“Everybody asks, ‘Where is the common sense?’” Hughes said, commenting about his dealings with county, state and federal officials. “With a straight face, they said with another $106 million they could solve the prairie dog problem the next 30 years. We’re almost 40 years into the start of this problem. In 40 years, we haven’t gotten to first base.”

Hughes blames the failure to contain the prairie dogs on environmentalists and government bureaucrats.

“We literally have a rule that says we will not count prairie dogs on private property, only three certified protected areas,” he said. “The people charged with solving the problems are the same people whose jobs are dependent on the problems. … It’s government at its best. Build a bureaucracy and perpetuate it.”

Senator LeRoy Louden has introduced a bill advancing in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature to limit the spread of black-tailed prairie dogs in that state by giving counties selective authority to administer a management program that would prevent prairie dog colonies from migrating from one property to another. An estimated 500,000 to more than a million of the nation’s 24 million black-tailed prairie dogs live in Nebraska.

“We have them in harder ground all over,” Louden told WLJ. “It does not take much for them to recolonize unless the ground is plowed up.”

Because bubonic plague can be prevalent in prairie dogs, they cannot be sold as pets. An outbreak of plague also can wipe out ferrets, which prey on the prairie dogs. When prairie dogs run out of food, they are known to cannibalize their young, Louden said. Some of their colonies can range in size from five to 10 acres up to miles in length.

Serving his 10th and final year as a legislator, Louden also has ranched for nearly 45 years, raising about 1,000 head of Herefords and Angus cattle. The livestock industry has been very profitable lately in the Cornhusker State, he said, noting Nebraska has not suffered drought conditions like Oklahoma and Texas.

Louden said his prairie dog legislation is similar to bills aimed at controlling noxious weeds by resolutions at the county level. “It isn’t a law that blankets the whole state of Nebraska,” he said. “So many areas in Nebraska don’t have prairie dogs and never will.”

Nebraska counties would have the power to notify landowners if a prairie dog colony was not being managed and required action.

On Feb. 1, a South Dakota house committee killed a measure that would have allowed ranchers to sue for damages if the state failed to control prairie dog populations.

Some South Dakota livestock producers contend the state failed to follow laws requiring the control of prairie dogs from public land such as Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grasslands to private land. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent