- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A law that gives Nebraska counties the power to manage black-tailed prairie dog populations was targeted for repeal Tuesday by the state’s longest-serving senator, a staunch animal rights activist.

State Sen. Ernie Chambers presented a repeal measure to a legislative committee, saying he would have fought to block the law had he been in the Legislature when it passed in 2012. Chambers was forced out of the Legislature due to term limits but returned to office last year.

The law allows counties to launch prairie-dog management programs, with the power to go onto a landowner’s property to eradicate the animals if they stray onto someone else’s land. Ranchers view them as pests because they can threaten cattle.

The black-tailed prairie dogs are widespread in parts of northwest Nebraska, where they dig holes that can break cows’ legs. The prairie dogs also kick up dirt that suffocates the grass that cattle need to survive, while eating much of the grass themselves.

The bill is intended to prevent black-tailed prairie dog colonies from spreading from one person’s property to another. Counties with management programs have the power to notify landowners that a colony is not being managed, and could demand that they address the problem. If the complaint goes unheeded, county officials could go onto a landowner’s property and kill the animals themselves.

“This is not a management bill,” Chambers said in testimony to the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee. “That’s the kind of name that was put on it to take away how bad it is for the ecology and overall welfare of this state.”

Chambers said prairie dogs are native to the area, while cattle are the invasive species. He also took issue with provisions that allow county officials to enter private property without liability.

The repeal measure drew support from the Nebraska Wildlife Federation and the Nebraska Farmers Union.

“It’s an embarrassment for Nebraska,” said Jarel Vinduska, a policy chairman for the Nebraska Wildlife Foundation. “When you look around the world today, you see wildlife species in peril. We live in an agricultural state, one that’s probably the most intensively managed for the betterment of humans to produce agriculture commodities. But as a result, most of the natural world is gone in Nebraska.”

The law was introduced by former state Sen. LeRoy Louden, an Ellsworth rancher, to address complaints from Sheridan County landowners in northwest Nebraska.

Sheridan County Commissioner James Krotz said Tuesday that the law has worked as a deterrent for landowners since the county adopted a prairie-dog management program. Krotz said county officials were previously unable to help several ranching families whose neighbors allowed prairie dogs to flourish and migrate onto other properties.

“Since we put together our management program, some of those bad neighbors have started to shape up,” Krotz said. “We haven’t had any complaints this year.”

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