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Prairie dogs damage private development as habitat disappears

SHARE Prairie dogs damage private development as habitat disappears

They hold developers and government hostage, carry the plague and blithely set up towns without respect to boundaries.

Originally classified as "endangered" in 1973, the Utah prairie dog was down-listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in the mid-1980s.

In the last five years, the state has spent nearly $1.9 million through a special mitigation fund aimed at preserving habitat and controlling the outbreak of disease in Utah prairie dogs.

Mike Styler, executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources, briefed lawmakers Wednesday on state responses to recovery efforts aimed at species already designated for protection or those that are close to getting listed.

"It is a top priority for the state of Utah to prevent federal listings," he told members of the natural resources and environment interim committee.

"We want to maintain control of all the wildlife and plant species in the state. We do not want the federal government to assume jurisdiction over any animal or any area."

To that end, a range-wide conservation plan led by Iron County is being implemented in the six-county area where the Utah prairie dog lives.

Mike Worthen, a wildlife biologist who heads up the natural resources department for Iron County, said 80 percent of the rodent's habitat is on private land, sabotaging prospects for development and posing public safety risks to property owners.

"Frustration has escalated to a level you cannot believe," Worthen said.

Developer Les Child told of how his subdivision, Equestrian Point, fell victim to the prairie dogs after a colony set up shop in the middle of the housing development after it was well on its way to completion.

"When we developed it, they were not there. They're moving into our large park where the children play, and there's nothing we can do about it."

Those behind the habitat restoration and conservation plans believe the population of prairie dogs has increased to healthy enough levels that it merits de-listing.

Environmental groups such as WildEarth Guardians — noting that the Utah prairie dog is the rarest of the prairie dog family — disagree and have urged that the animal be bumped back to "endangered," because of dramatically declining habitat.

Styler, however, said he believes an ambitious effort to restore rangeland for the prairie dog can mimic conservation efforts that were put in place 10 to 15 years ago for the desert tortoise.

Styler also pointed to the state's efforts to restore and preserve rangeland for the sage grouse, which earlier this year was designated as a candidate for listing but was not added because of higher priorities of federal wildlife officials.

"We've been working on this for years and years and have spent literally millions and millions of dollars in projects for sage grouse, and we have seen that pay off," Styler said, noting that the population is healthy enough that a hunting season can be justified for the male birds.

Over the last two years, the state has allocated $2 million for sage grouse protections.

Despite this, Styler pointed out that Utah had been lumped in with other Western states that aren't doing as much restoration of habitat.

"Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming are talking to us about our watershed initiative," which is a multi-pronged effort to restore, conserve and manage ecosystems in priority areas of the state, Styler said. "If those states would do that, sage grouse would have a much better chance of not being listed in the future."

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com