Fed up with federal restrictions on private land use, Iron County officials are asking the Utah Legislature to back their proposal to take over the management of prairie dogs, federally listed as a threatened species.
SCR3, a concurrent resolution endorsing local control of the animal's recovery with state assistance, cleared the Senate Tuesday without a single dissenting vote and is awaiting further action in the House. Sponsor Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said that under county management, the Utah prairie dog will recover sufficiently to de-list the species in five years, much sooner than the three decades envisioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But it is unclear whether such a move would be legal in the absence of a statewide recovery plan, according to federal wildlife managers. Meanwhile conservationists' predict local control would set back the prairie dog, considered by some locals a nuisance best managed with bullets.
"This would be a terrible idea," said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. "The county's interest is primarily economic. The prairie dog is being used as the latest vehicle in which private property activists are expressing their long-held grievances with the federal government and public lands. This is not a new story in Utah."
But the feds' recovery program really tramples the rights of private property owners who are being denied full use of their land in the name of prairie dog recovery, according to Iron County commissioners who pleaded with lawmakers for relief at a Senate committee meeting last week.
"It's a top-heavy administration-laden program that essentially removes sound reasoning and common sense out of the equation," Commissioner Dave Miller said. "It's clustered with complex and overly sophisticated biological approaches."
He said a Cedar City dairy pulled the plug on a $10 million expansion because 85 prairie dogs were found living on the property. Along with Commissioner Dale Brinkerhoff, Miller said prairie dog conservation is a key factor in depressing the local economy and pushing down property tax valuations.
Utah prairie dogs, a species confined to southwest Utah, have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1973. Most of their habitat lies on private land, and nearly two-thirds is concentrated in Iron County, where the burrowing animals perforate golf courses and airport runways and even turn up in caskets in the Paragonah cemetery.
"Contrary to public belief, it's not the prairie dog we hate and detest, it's the process, the bureaucratic mess we find ourselves entangled in," Brinkerhoff said. "We fully believe the dog will be more protected under county management than under Fish and Wildlife because it will eliminate the urge and temptation to go out and kill the dogs."
Under federal management, recovery is expected to cost up to $130 million, according to Vickers.
"We are asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to transfer conservation funds to the county to allow them to put the plan in place so in a five-year period we move those dogs off the threatened list so we can get back to business as usual," Vickers said.
But wildlife officials doubt federal money can be transferred this way, while conservationists remain deeply skeptical of locals' ability to save the prairie dog.
"Fish and Wildlife has a plan. What does have Iron County have? It has to be a holistic plan for the entire range. You can't do things piecemeal and expect to have a sustainable recovery," said Taylor Jones of WildEarth Guardians. "They need to look carefully at what they are intending to do."