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Utah residents in battle to rid town of prairie dogs

In southern Utah, folks have just about had it with prairie dogs and the federal government. Residents say the rodent has reproduced so much that it's a complete nuisance. And there's little they can do about it.

In 1973, the Utah prairie dog was labeled "endangered" under federal law. In 1984, the species had thrived enough to be upgraded to "threatened" status under the Endangered Species Act.  

But a quarter-century later?

"It's a plague, as far as I'm concerned," said Parowan native Bob Talbot as he stood atop a hill overlooking farmland that's come alive with prairie dogs popping out of holes.

"They're just ruining the fields, building lots, everything else around," Talbot griped.

In town, realtors say the prairie dog hurt their business during the housing boom. "People from out of state actually think they're cute," said Cindy Smith of CS Real Estate Group. "But once we tell them you have to pay to get them cleared. ...it's a whole different story."

'It's a plague, as far as I'm concerned.'

- Bob Talbot

At a nearby church, the pastoral staff is concerned about their children's safety. Associate Pastor Rob Bernhardi walked through the grassy grounds of Grace Christian Church, pointing out hole after hole dug by prairie dogs. Bernhardi would like to fill the tunnels to prevent his congregation's children from tripping. But he's hamstrung by federal law.  

"God's given us dominion over the animals. Right now, the animals have dominion over us," Bernhardi said.  

The most striking example of the prairie dog's influence is next door in Paraghona, Utah. Population: 550. The town's cemetery has been ransacked by the critter. In some cases, the dogs have burrowed below tombstones, leaving gaping holes.  

"At first they were pests," said Paraghona Mayor Connie Robinson. But now, she's concerned about the safety of grievers, who are also distraught at seeing their family burial grounds destroyed.

"They've come to me and said, 'I'm sorry I ever buried 'em here, because we put them here thinking they'd be safe and these prairie dogs can do whatever they want.'"  

Her town has spent thousands of dollars on two fences to keep prairie dogs out. Neither worked. "I just wanna be exempt from the Endangered Species and get 'em out of here. I don't wanna mess with another fence. Why waste the money?" Robinson asked.

Over at the Parowan Airport, the runway was so dug up that it no longer met Federal Aviation Administration standards. With the help of FAA funding, the airport built a massive fence burrowing 6 feet below ground. So far, it's worked.  

In a major concession, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources will allow the airport to trap and relocate the remaining prairie dogs this summer. After the trapping period ends, they can exterminate what's left.

But prairie dog experts oppose extermination.

"Love 'em or hate em, we gotta have 'em," said Lindsey Sterling Krank of the Prairie Dog Coalition. Krank says she understands the frustration of the locals, but believes the rodents serve a purpose.  

"If you were to remove a prairie dog from the prairie ecosystem, the prairie ecosystem could fall apart," Krank said.

Washington, DC, has finally taken notice of the problem. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) visited the cemetery earlier this year, witnessing firsthand the red flags that dot the land, marking dozens of holes.

"It's a sacrilege," Hatch told KSTU-TV in Salt Lake City.  "I think it's a disaster that we can't take care of those prairie dogs." Along with the rest of Utah's congressional delegation, he is supporting legislation that would allow the cemetery to kill remaining prairie dogs.  

It can't come too soon for locals like Parowan Councilman Dennis Gaede, who says their hands are tied. "We're basically held hostage by the prairie dog and the federal government."

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