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Prairie dogs on their way to pest status in SD

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Liberty Belle

Well-known member
Feb 10, 2005
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northwestern South Dakota
Prairie dogs on their way to pest status
By Denise Ross, Journal Staff Writer
PIERRE -- Prairie dogs are on their way once again to having the status of pest in South Dakota after a legislative committee vote Tuesday.

A bill that would allow the state to declare as pests some colonies of the much maligned rodent under limited circumstances passed the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on a unanimous vote Tuesday.
If SB216 passes the full House of Representatives, it will go to Gov. Mike Rounds for his signature or veto.

The bill is part of a broader debate about a prairie dog management plan for the state. A pair of cabinet secretaries have agreed on a plan that is now working its way through the Legislature, although many ranchers and Fall River County officials back a more stringent plan that would be tougher on prairie dogs.

The Rounds administration and ranchers agree in their support of SB216, but the measure is opposed by the Prairie Hills Audubon Society because it would not treat all prairie dogs equally.

Under SB216, prairie dogs would be declared a pest under the following conditions:

-- Sylvatic plague has been reported in any prairie dog colony east of the Rocky Mountains.

-- The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department determines prairie dogs occupy more than 145,000 acres inside the state's boundaries.

-- Unwanted prairie dog colonies appear on private land.

-- Lands surrounding the infested private land have not had a one-mile buffer zone maintained, and the owner of the infested land has filed a formal complaint with the state Agriculture Department.

Sen. Jim Lintz, R-Hermosa, said SB216 is needed because it gives more control in the hands of local officials, who can aid individual landowners who often must deal with the bureaucracy of federal agencies that own neighboring land.

Nancy Hilding, president of Prairie Hills Audubon Society, said SB216 would result in some prairie dogs in South Dakota receiving protection while others are targeted for elimination.

"I believe you're creating legal chaos here," Hilding said.

Provisions of the state's management plan, which still awaits legislative approval, would protect the state's prairie dog population because the animal's population in other states has been hit hard by the plague and loss of habitat. Hilding said those protections are at cross-purposes with SB216.

In addition, she said SB216 would likely have the practical effect of relegating all of South Dakota's prairie dogs to tribal lands.

Currently, there are more than 216,000 acres of prairie dogs on tribal land in South Dakota, more than the 145,000 acres required under SB216.

"You could wipe out every single prairie dog on nontribal land and rely on that tribal property. That impinges on tribal sovereignty," Hilding said.

Hilding said the one-mile buffer zone that SB216 requires of landowners could infringe on the property rights of owners of small ranches who want to allow prairie dogs.

"There are people who want to maintain prairie dogs on their property because they believe in conservation. In order to do that, they have to have a very large ranch," she said.

When questioned by the committee about the stripped-bare condition of the Conata Basin in southwestern South Dakota, Hilding said the dearth of vegetation can be attributed as much to overgrazing and drought as to prairie dogs.

"It's a drought, and during drought prairie doges expand," she said. "When there isn't enough food, animals and people move."

SB216 is needed as part of a broader state plan to keep prairie dogs from coming off of federally owned land, such as the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, onto private ranches, several ranchers testified.

Without such provisions in state law, federal agencies will be slow to respond to problems, Fall River County Commission chairman Glen Reaser said.

"They will not only destroy the grasslands, but private land will be infested," Reaser said.

In addition to passing SB216, the committee heard some testimony on SB181, a prairie dog management plan that is in direct competition with a plan drawn up by top Rounds administration officials.

Fall River County officials and many ranchers beset with prairie dogs favor SB181 over the other plan, saying provisions in the Rounds administration plan don't require federal agencies to take action until after prairie dogs enter private land.

Rancher John Sides of Smithwick pleaded with the committee to pass SB181.

"We're desperate," he said.

Monte Whitcher of Scenic agreed.

"I don't think we can hardly live without it," he said.

The committee is expected to vote on SB181 on Thursday, Feb. 24.

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