WASHINGTON — Move over, Carl Spackler. Utah's congressional delegation has declared war on its own varmint.
Like Billy Murray's classic "Caddyshack" character going after gophers, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch et al. want to rid some pastoral landscapes of prairie dogs.
Both Utah senators and all three congressmen have teamed up to propose legislation allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lethally remove the animals from cemeteries and airports located within the range of the Utah prairie dog. Currently, federal wildlife managers may only eradicate the animals from agricultural areas.
The federal government lists the Utah prairie dog as a threatened species.
Prairie dogs have done extensive damage to the Paragonah Cemetery and the Parowan airport runway in Iron County.
"They're basically destroying it," said airport manager Dave Norwood. Not only are the animals digging holes in the runway safety areas, but they're burrowing under and coming up through the asphalt as well.
We're worried about aircraft landing. If they drop a nose gear in one of those holes, it could take a nose gear off and potentially kill somebody.
"We're worried about aircraft landing. If they drop a nose gear in one of those holes, it could take a nose gear off and potentially kill somebody," he said.
Hatch said the county’s hands are tied in dealing with the prairie dog problem, and the bill would ensure resources are dedicated to addressing it. "I’m pleased the delegation has been able to quickly come together and introduce this meaningful legislation to protect the safety and sanctity of sites across our state," he said.
GOP Sen. Mike Lee said protecting the issue goes beyond the desecration of a burial site and the public safety hazard of an airport.
"The very rules that surround the protection of certain species are outdated, unfair, and have disastrous consequences," he said.
Congressman Jason Chaffetz, a Republican representing the 3rd District, said Utah prairie dogs should not be elevated above the health and welfare of residents. "I promise to use whatever means necessary to stop bureaucrats or environmentalists who care more about prairie dogs than people.”
I promise to use whatever means necessary to stop bureaucrats or environmentalists who care more about prairie dogs than people.
Norwood said the state Division of Wildlife Resources has been trapping and relocating prairie dogs from the airport to the Bryce Canyon area.
But Lindsey Sterling Krank, director of the Prairie Dog Coalition based in Boulder, Colo., said the program has only a 5 percent to 10 percent success rate, meaning the vast majority are dying.
"I would say the Utah prairie dog is in real trouble," she said. "As the most imperiled of all prairie dog species in the United States, it seems this committee’s time would be better spent improving their relocation methods rather than killing even more."
Krank suggested working together to improve the situation in southern Utah. "I'm happy to help," she said.
Utah has pushed hard to implement its own conservation measures, spending $1.9 million to help preserve the wild areas where it lives and control outbreaks of disease.
While 6,000 Utah prairie dogs can be taken under current law, environmentalists say systematic destruction of habitat, disease, and predation have reduced adult numbers from 95,000 in the early 1920s to about 12,000 adults today. A pilot program led by Iron County began in 2010 and involves the six-county area where the species lives in Utah.