A growing population of raccoons is running amok in Utah, causing property damage and preying on other wildlife, especially migratory birds.

"What you're looking at is dramatic growth of their habitat," said Bob Hasenyager, regional supervisor of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.It's gotten so bad that the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is considering measures, including trapping, to keep raccoons from eating its birds.

"They're omnivorous, they'll eat about anything," Hasenyager said. "They're adaptive, and they're clever. As a result, they've been able to encroach on most of the habitats in the state of Utah, especially where there's water."

Mike Bodenchuk, acting director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture office of Animal Damage Control, said he gets five to 10 complaints a week.

They kill wildlife, rip holes in people's roofs, eat chickens and nest in chimneys.

There is no place in Utah that does not have them, he said, and they are making more than just pests of themselves. They are destroying other wildlife the state and federal governments are trying to attract, such as birds.

"Raccoons are nest predators - they eat the eggs," he said. "They are big enough to drive a hen mallard off her nest."

Raccoons are relative newcomers to Utah. A survey of the state's mammals in 1952 found just a rumor of one raccoon near St. George.

Asked where they live now, Hasenyager said, "Do you have a back yard?"

His home is in Farmington, near a marshy area, and "they're fighting in my back yard every night."

Hasenyager said nobody knows why raccoons have moved into Utah. It might be migration, he said, and it might be pets that people let loose.

Wild birds are especially endangered. Al Trout, manager of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, said that within the month he will begin control measures that will include trapping and destruction of den habitat.

The refuge, he said, is still trying to build up its bird populations from 1983, when flooding destroyed all the nesting sites.

The process takes time, he said. First a bird has to nest there and raise young, then those young have to come back the next year and nest.

Bodenchuk said his agency, which works with the Utah Department of Agriculture, is trapping raccoons in Cache, Sanpete and Sevier counties as an experiment to see if native populations of pheasant rebound.