This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The lowly prairie dog doesn't get much respect.
Maligned by alfala farmers, ranchers and local governments alike, the 3-pound rodent often is considered more nuisance than vital part of the ecosystem.
Nevertheless, the Utah Wildlife Board approved the first management plan for the Utah Prairie Dog this week.
Utah is home to three varieties of the rodent, including Gunnison and white-tailed, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists just the Utah prairie dog on the Endangered Species List.
Under pressure from southern Utah towns and a federal court judge, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources was forced to come up with a management plan for dogs found on non-federal lands. The dogs are protected on federal lands.
Under the plan, wildlife managers would be able to "take" or kill a maximum of 6,000 Utah prairie dogs annually to protect "human safety, development and agricultural/rangelands conflicts." Those who kill the animals will have to notify the state wildlife agency.
It would still be illegal for anyone to move live prairie dogs or to use poison, fumigants or gases to kill the animals.
Iron County Commissioner David Miller told the wildlife board he appreciated the DWR's efforts to quickly produce a solid plan.
"This plan addresses long-held problems and conflicts that happen with private property," Miller told the wildlife board Thursday. "It took a lot of leadership, a lot of teamwork, a lot of science to bring this plan together. We wholeheartedly support it."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, a group of Cedar City residents, business owners and local government leaders, sued the Fish and Wildlife Service two years ago, frustrated with their inability to do anything about prairie dogs digging through parks, the town cemetery and airport runways.
And last November, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson struck down regulations on the capture and killing of the threatened rodent on non-federal land.
Fish and Wildlife is appealing Benson's ruling. But the state was forced to come up with a plan.
Biologists are well prepared to manage Utah prairie dogs, according to state wildlife officials who crafted the plan, along with officials from various counties and land management agencies.
"The Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) did not just start into the prairie dog business after the ruling," DWR director Greg Sheehan told board members. "We have been in the prairie dog business for decades. We have as much expertise as anybody on the planet. We are not wondering how to best manage them; we have been doing it for decades.
"We will continue to ensure and promote healthy prairie dog populations in Utah."
But questions have been raised about the state's new plan.
Federal wildlife managers and Allison Jones of the Wild Utah Project said the 6,000 cap on killed animals is too high for a creature listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List.
Most Utah prairie dogs live in southwestern Utah. Historically, the Utah prairie dog's habitat reached as far north as Nephi. In the 1920s, wildlife managers estimated there were nearly 95,000 of the dogs in Utah. But that number dropped to around 82,000 in a 2014 peak summertime count.
The Utah prairie dog was listed as an Endangered Species in 1973 and reclassified as threatened in 1984.
Kevin Bunnell, DWR's southeastern regional supervisor, said 6,000 is the maximum allowed number of prairie dogs taken similar to caps set in previous years.
"The actual take will very likely be less," he said. "It is a self-regulating number: On low population years, a reduction will naturally occur because we will not grant so many permits. Landowners will also not be asking for as many when numbers are low."
DWR issued a total of 7,200 permits last year, and about 3,200 prairie dogs were killed.
Miller said property owners would be judicious in their efforts to kill the animals.
"We recognize we are responsible to show stewardship to wildlife in our community and we have taken that approach from the beginning," he said.
A major part of the state's plan involves trapping and relocating prairie dogs from areas where they are creating issues on private property, within approved developments and at parks, golf courses, school grounds and cemeteries.
DWR biologists hope to move up to 3,000 Utah prairie dogs this year double the number that have been moved in other years.
The state has budgeted money for the Utah prairie dog program for years, but the lawsuit has spurred efforts to boost those resources.
Cedar City Republican Rep. Evan Vickers is sponsoring the Utah Prairie Dog Management Appropriation Bill (SB230). The bill, currently scheduled for a debate on the Senate floor, would set aside a one-time appropriation of $650,000.
If passed, the money would help with relocation and control efforts, but also would compensate property owners with prairie dogs on their land.
Agricultural landowners with 50 or more Utah prairie dogs on their property in the spring could apply for compensation for crop losses and damage. Participants would have to allow DWR biologists to trap the rodents for relocation. Landowners could then apply for $45.90 for each adult Utah prairie dog remaining on their property.
Owners could also be compensated for damage to equipment, fencing and other materials.
In the meantime, Utah Wildlife Board member Mike King encouraged wildlife managers to develop an outreach program to inform not only landowners, but also the general public, about the role prairie dogs play in Utah's wildlife picture.
The burrowing systems of prairie dogs often are used by burrowing owls, rabbits and weasels. They also are an important food source for raptors and small predators.
"For the most part, we are hearing about what a nuisance they are. Not enough is being said about their value," King said. "They do good stuff and they get eaten by good stuff."