SALT LAKE CITY — Communities and residents who say they have been held helplessly hostage to colonies of uninvited Utah prairie dogs are applauding a new federal proposal that would allow the animals' extermination if all else fails.
"We have not been able to legally do anything to them," said Parowan Airport manager Dave Norwood. "If we do anything, it is called harassment," including shooing them away, he added.
Once on the Endangered Species List, the Utah prairie dog was down-listed in 1984 to "threatened" status.
Utah has been working furiously to stave off habitat degradation and counter disease among the animals to avoid having the species thrown back on the list in a full-blown manner, which would kick in even greater restrictions and protections.
In the interim, whole neighborhoods pop up in conflict with public infrastructure or amenities such as cemeteries or airports or golf courses — and little can be done to counter the havoc that results.
"There was a time when the only prairie dogs were in an area northeast of the airport," Norwood said. "All of sudden they were all over the airport, every place."
He figures multiple agencies including the airport have spent upward of $800,000 over the last decade in the erection of special fencing or barriers to try to keep the prairie dogs out — to no avail.
"The only thing we can do to react is fill in the holes in the runway after it has been undermined and caves in."
The problem has escalated to the point where the state of Utah will not allow its aircraft to land at the airport and neither will a Utah County flight school, Norwood said.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it is considering changes to its management of the Utah prairie dog, including changing the rate at which the animal is allowed to be "taken" under harvest.
Laura Romin, deputy field supervisor for the Utah office of the agency, said the proposal would change the harvest rate for the Utah prairie dog from fixed to fluctuating — 10 percent of the estimated annual population.
In addition, another revision allows the Utah prairie dog to be killed if it is interfering in matters of human safety or the sanctity of human burial sites.
Norwood said that has been another problem in the rural communities of Iron County, where the Paragonah Cemetery has had graves disturbed.
Paragonah Mayor Constance Robinson said the prairie dogs have caused destruction to a number of older graves lacking vaults and the animals have actually tunneled into coffins. She said there's been no evidence bones being brought to the surface — despite rumors to the contrary — but the damage has been emotionally upsetting and expensive for the small town.
Under the proposed change, Romin said if those impacted can demonstrate they took reasonable efforts to fence out, trap and translocate prairie dogs and those efforts failed, lethal removal of the animals would be allowed.
"This is significant for those impacted," she said.
Although Utah prairie dog populations are stable to increasing, the animals' role as a keystone species is viewed as critical to sustaining prairie and grasslands ecosystems — and thus environmental groups argue for greater protections.
Lindsey Sterling-Krank, director of the Prairie Dog Coalition, said the group is disappointed with the proposed change that would allow nuisance killing.
“I appreciate the complexity of managing prairie dogs, but would prefer to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to focus on improving translocation efforts before passing rule changes that allow more killing of this protected species," she said.
On the flip side, she did note that the change to how many Utah prairie dogs can be taken appears to be a step forward because it clarifies and strengthens limits.
The Utah prairie dog was historically found in Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Juab, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier, Washington and Wayne counties. Its population began to decline when control programs were initiated in the 1920s, and by the 1960s, the species’ distribution was greatly reduced as a result of poisoning, disease, drought and habitat degradation.
Today they are limited to the central and southwestern quarter of Utah in portions of seven counties — Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Piute, Sevier and Wayne.
A copy of the proposed rule, the draft Environmental Assessment, and other information about the Utah prairie dog is available on the Internet or by contacting Utah Field Office at 2369 West Orton Circle, West Valley City, UT 84119 (telephone 801-975-3330; fax 801-975‑3331.