As winter gave way to spring last year at Bryce Canyon National Park, Moyle Johnson noticed fresh burrowing around a well he was charged with protecting from contamination.
Suspecting prairie dogs were the culprits, Johnson shoveled dirt into the burrows. He hoped to get a count on how many of the critters were there by seeing which burrows they reopened. Once he had a tally, the prairie dogs could be removed.
But Johnson’s creative “Caddyshack”-like sleuthing has turned into an episode of “Law & Order.”
While the Garfield County Commission is saluting the 30-year maintenance staffer at Bryce Canyon as an inventive hero, federal wildlife officials are investigating him for possibly disturbing protected wildlife.
“I take my job seriously. Because of my actions I have been investigated and am told they are ready to move against me for violations of the Endangered Species Act,” said Johnson on Friday. “The investigation went for over a year. It’s been very frustrating and taxing on me.”
For two years, Johnson had been trying in vain to get his bosses to address the prairie dogs that “infest” ground near the park’s three wells, alleges a resolution adopted May 14 by Garfield commissioners.
Feces in the burrows is responsible for E. coli, a bacteria that sickens humans and has shown up in test samples periodically since 2011. It poses the biggest risk when the water table rises after wet winters, inundating the burrows and carrying feces into an aquifer the wells tap.
Citing a threat to public heath and safety, the commission’s resolution commends Johnson’s efforts aimed at safeguarding water for park visitors, whose numbers reached a record 2.6 million last year. The commission demands the National Park Service remove prairie dogs within 100 feet of the wells by May 31 and from a larger protective zone by July 31.
Bryce Canyon officials say the park’s drinking water was never compromised, thanks to filtration and chemical treatments. They have agreed to comply, but the case highlights the tensions between Utah’s rural county leaders and federal land agencies, especially when it comes to managing federally protected species.
In this case, a county sheriff is flexing his authority to force a national park to move Utah prairie dogs, an animal listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“They have known about this problem since 2011 and have done nothing. The resolution was sparked by the unfair [potential] prosecution of Moyle Johnson. He was in no way trying to harm prairie dogs,” Garfield County Sheriff James “Danny” Perkins said. “It is frustrating to me that I even have to waste my time on this kind of stuff.”
Garfield officials have long complained that federal land agencies habitually allow unsafe conditions to persist on lands they administer, especially in the overgrown and beetle-killed timber found in Dixie National Forest.
Unlike their state counterparts, however, the federal agencies juggle competing mandates that often conflict.
“We have more in agreement than not with the County Commission,” said Bryce Canyon Superintendent Linda Mazzu. “You have to balance one resource against the other. I have water quality and a federally listed species that need protection.”
Johnson’s counterpart in “Caddyshack,” the 1980 cult comedy, is the greenskeeper Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray, who targets a ritzy golf course’s gopher residents with militarized violence. His use of floodwaters and plastic explosives sculpted into rodents winds up inflicting more damage than the gophers ever could.
Measures deployed by Johnson were far less intrusive than Carl’s hilarious overkill, yet county officials complain that he could face serious legal consequences for doing his job.
With approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Johnson had earlier packed dirt into burrows within 25 feet of the main well in a partially successful attempt to get the dogs to move, according to the County Commission’s resolution.
In March 2017, at the tail end of the wettest winter in years, Johnson conducted an experiment to determine how many dogs remained inside a 100-foot buffer zone that state law requires around drinking water sources. He shoveled dirt into the burrows without tamping it down. Fresh holes appeared in three burrows, suggesting three scofflaws resided within the no-dog perimeter.
But federal authorities had not been consulted and now Johnson finds himself the “object of disdain, scorn, retribution, harassment, isolation, criminal investigation, threatened loss of employment, and possible prosecution,” the resolution alleges.
Johnson, who also is a captain in Tropic’s volunteer fire department, declined to discuss the matter in detail, citing advice from his lawyer. He did fault U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials for taking a hard line.
“They are tying the hands of Bryce Canyon National Park,” he said, “and not allowing them to protect their water system.”
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, cited the park staffer’s plight at a recent legislative interim meeting to highlight what many state lawmakers regard as the arrogance and incompetence of federal agencies.
“Prairie dogs are more important than clean water,” Noel said mockingly. “I hope we can give Moyle Johnson a medal rather than indict him.”
Noel was directing his ire at Utah Department of Environmental Quality Executive Director Alan Matheson, who assured lawmakers that the park has been in full compliance with drinking water standards.
The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on Johnson’s status, saying it is the subject of an ongoing investigation.
For her part, Mazzu denied the park retaliated against him.
“There is no [NPS] administrative proceeding going on with Moyle,” Mazzu said. “I am required by law to consult on actions that may harm a listed species. [Fish and Wildlife] did choose to do a criminal investigation. I don’t know why. He’s a great employee.”
She said park managers did respond to Johnson’s concerns by building an exclosure fence, forming a 100-foot perimeter around the park’s wells. The fence went 6 feet underground, and the first 3 feet aboveground featured a visual barrier so animals cannot see inside the exclosure, according to Mazzu.
The park will move the prairie dogs that remain inside the fence by June 15. A delay is needed so that a suitable home can be prepared.
“They have to be moved to burrows, so you have to find abandoned burrows. But a lot were abandoned for a reason,” Mazzu said. “They have rabbitbrush around them, and prairie dogs don’t like that.”