- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska wildlife advocates and a farmers group asked lawmakers Tuesday to repeal a law designed to limit the spread of black-tailed prairie dogs, a critical native species that some ranchers view as pests.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha presented his repeal measure to the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee, saying the current law is too vague and runs afoul of property rights.

Black-tailed prairie dogs are considered a “keystone” species that play a crucial role in the region’s ecological balance. They’re widespread in parts of northwest Nebraska, where they dig holes in ranchland. Ranchers say cattle can step in the holes and break legs, although Chambers said larger animals may be to blame.

The 2012 law gives counties the option to control prairie dog populations when a landowner’s neighbors complain about the animals on their property. Counties have to approve a management plan with public hearings before they can act.

Chambers - who wasn’t in the Legislature when it passed - said the law doesn’t specify when or how a population becomes managed. It also lets county officials go onto a person’s land based on complaints from a neighbor who may hold a grudge, he said.

“What we ought to do is let those disputes be resolved not by the county board, but by the courts,” Chambers said.

Chambers said the poison commonly used to kill prairie dogs could also hurt eagles, hawks and ferrets.

The Agriculture Committee took no action on the bill Tuesday.

The repeal measure drew support from the Wachiska Audubon Society of southeast Nebraska, the Nebraska Farmers Union and the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club. Despite past support from ranchers, some farmers said a law that forces them to kill the prairie dogs could hurt their operations.

Robert Bernt of Spalding said using poison on his property would cause him to lose his certification as an organic dairy farmer for at least three years - and cost his business an estimated $400,000.

Bernt said he devised a novel solution to keep the prairie dogs contained to his land in northern Nebraska’s Wheeler County. He set up a 12-foot-high perching post on the edge of his property. The perch attracts eagles and hawks, which prey on the black-tailed prairie dogs and keep them away from his neighbor’s land.

“It’s very effective,” Bernt said.

Since the law passed, only Sheridan County in northwest Nebraska has created a management plan. Sheridan County requires written notification giving landowners 60 days to manage the prairie dog colonies.

Landowners who fail to comply could face a fine of up to $1,500. If they haven’t shown progress after 60 days, the county can send an agent to take “appropriate management measures” at the owner’s expense by placing a lien on the property.

Sheridan County officials have said they were previously unable to help several ranching families whose neighbors allowed prairie dogs to flourish and migrate onto other properties.

Larry Dix of the Nebraska Association of County Officials said the lack of complaints from Sheridan County shows the law is working as intended.

“It is working, and it can work. I think Sheridan County has proven that.”

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