Utah prairie dogs prosper under state management

CEDAR CITY — For more than two years, Utah prairie dogs in southwestern Utah have prospered under the watchful eye of state wildlife biologists.

Now, those biologists are concerned. They say a recent court ruling — which gives management authority back to the federal government — could make it challenging to manage conflicts between prairie dogs and people.

On March 29, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district court ruling made in November 2014. The district court ruling gave management authority — for Utah prairie dogs found on private land — to the state of Utah. The March 29 ruling gives that management authority back to the federal government.

Utah prairie dogs were listed as endangered shortly after the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973.

“One of the biggest challenges to managing Utah prairie dogs are federal rules that do not allow biologists the flexibility they need to do what’s best for the species and for the people who live in areas where prairie dogs are found,” says Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).

The biggest concern, Sheehan says, is what biologists can and can’t do with Utah prairie dogs found on private land. Under federal rules, the number of prairie dogs that can be lost to development and other events on private land is extremely limited. The state plan, however, gave biologists added flexibility to move prairie dogs off private land.

In 2015 and 2016, an average of 2,300 prairie dogs were moved off private land in Wayne, Garfield and Iron counties each year. DWR biologists took the animals to public land that provided the prairie dogs with good habitat. Prairie dogs have done well in these areas and are contributing to the species recovery goals.

“It was a win-win for everyone,” Sheehan says. “Local communities, local governments and private landowners were happy. And Utah prairie dogs have never done better.”

Utah prairie dogs were under state management from November 2014 to the March 29, 2017 circuit court ruling. During that time, the population reached the highest numbers seen since formal range-wide counts started in 1976.

Based on counts conducted in spring 2015, biologists estimated the population at 92,894 prairie dogs. That was the highest count on record.

In spring 2016, disease within the prairie dog population caused numbers to dip a bit, to 82,685. But the 82,685 prairie dogs was still the second highest count since surveys started in 1976.

“State management was a win-win for everyone,” Sheehan says. “Prairie dogs were placed in the best suitable habitat, and private landowners who had conflicts with prairie dogs could ask that the animals be relocated to more suitable habitat.

“Now,” he says, “the management of Utah prairie dogs is back in a quagmire of federal bureaucracy. The state rules allowed us to work proactively, with local governments and landowners, to do what was best for the prairie dogs and those who live with the animals in the three counties.”

Adam Kavalunas, Utah prairie dog recovery biologist for the DWR, says the state’s plan — The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Utah Prairie Dog Management Plan for Non-federal Lands — went into effect in early May 2015. The plan was compiled with input from numerous local entities. Those entities included county governments, state legislators, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration and the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

“The state management plan has been well received by the local communities,” Kavalunas says. “It provides more options to work through Utah prairie dog conflicts on private land than federal rules allow.”

Even though the state plan offered more leniency in working with prairie dogs, there has been no noticeable negative effect on the population.

“The last two years have resulted in the two highest population estimates since counts began in 1976,” Kavalunas says. “Even though there was a concerted effort to remove prairie dogs from highly sensitive areas, such as housing subdivisions, city parks and other public use areas, the overall number of Utah prairie dogs did more than maintain itself — it actually increased during the two years of the plan.”