LINCOLN — On her grassy acreage west of Kearney, Neb., Alice Heckman can gaze out on a colony of chirping critters that fascinated Lewis and Clark and prompt cuss words from many Nebraska ranchers.
During her youth, she recalls, prairie dog towns stretched four miles up a draw in the Platte River bluffs.
Now maybe three dozen of the burrowing rodents inhabit Heckman's 12-acre property. They are the last remnant of a giant colony reduced by plowing, poisons and recreational shooting.
"They're fascinating to watch," said Heckman, a retired elementary school principal. "I love it in the spring. The little ones come out to play, and they're not afraid of people. One momma will come out and baby-sit while they play. One is a patriarch. A fat one."
"Why would anyone want to kill them?" she asked.
But under a bill awaiting final approval Thursday in the Nebraska Legislature, county officials would gain the ability to start prairie-dog management plans allowing them to go onto Heckman's land to eradicate the prairie dogs if she allowed the animals to migrate off her property.
Supporters, such as State Sen. Leroy Louden, a Sand Hills rancher, say the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Management Act is a reasonable attempt to resolve problems when prairie dogs expand onto neighboring properties where they're not wanted. Many ranchers consider them nuisances that damage grazing land and become a hazard for livestock because of their burrows and because they attract rattlesnakes.
"I don't know what the big fuss is," said Louden, of Ellsworth, Neb. "If you want prairie dogs, raise all you want. Just keep them on your own property."
Opponents, including the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Nebraska Council of Sportsmen's Clubs and Audubon Society of Nebraska, have mounted a last-minute effort to derail the bill.
They say it threatens landowner rights and could prompt lawsuits if poisoning efforts end up killing animals that feed on prairie dogs, including endangered and threatened species and protected migrating birds.
"We think it's a bad idea to put wildlife management in Nebraska in the hands of county officials when it should be in the hands of wildlife professionals like the folks at the (Nebraska) Game and Parks Commission," said Duane Hovorka of the Wildlife Federation.
If a protected migrating bird such as a burrowing owl or golden eagle eats a poisoned prairie dog and dies after a county eradication effort, local taxpayers could be liable, Hovorka said.
Opponents also say the bill violates private property rights because it allows counties to go onto private land to "investigate" whether prairie dogs have migrated and are causing a problem and to poison them if a landowner refuses.
The prairie-dog measure, Legislative Bill 473, sailed through first- and second-round debate with little discussion and without a dissenting vote. The wildlife groups admit that the bill, which was introduced last year, flew under their radar until recently.
That's a far cry from the legislative dust kicked up seven years ago on a similar proposal. Then-State Sen. Ernie Chambers filibustered that bill for three days, evoking the power of a prairie dog stuffed animal he called "Belvedere." The bill died by a one-vote margin.
Back then, the Nebraska Association of County Officials opposed the bill, saying it amounted to an expensive "mandate" on counties to control prairie dogs.
But this year, the county association has gotten behind Louden's bill, which has been amended to allow counties to establish prairie dog management plans only if they wish. The public, bill proponents point out, will have input on any management plans, which must be approved by a county board.
Larry Dix, the executive director of the county association, said that while he hasn't heard a clamor from counties for LB 473, prairie dogs are a real problem in some ranching areas.
"It's a tool if it needs to be used," Dix said.
The wildlife groups say the law would be a recipe for disaster that, in other states, has spawned conflicts between counties and landowners.
Former Nebraskan Ron Klataske of the Audubon Kansas, said that in Kansas, a similar prairie-dog management law has prompted lawsuits when overly aggressive county commissioners use the bill to eradicate all prairie dogs.
He said the law has complicated efforts on private land in Kansas to reintroduce endangered black-footed ferrets, which feed on prairie dogs and live in their colonies.
Landowners went to court to fend off a county's efforts to eradicate prairie dogs on the reintroduction sites, said Klataske, whose organization operates a wildlife area near Bassett, Neb., that has prairie dogs.
"The law has been badly abused in Kansas," he said.
While Audubon of Nebraska opposes the bill, it has suggested two amendments: to require counties to consult with state or federal wildlife biologists on their management plans to minimize the county's liability; and to eliminate the right to "investigate" prairie-dog problems without a complaint.
Loudon and Dix dismiss the objections to the bill.
Loudon said he doubts that LB 473 would be used very often but that it would come in handy in cases where an absentee or uncaring landowner allows prairie dogs to expand onto a neighbor's land and cause damage.
LB 473 is patterned after county noxious weed ordinances. If a landowner fails to control weeds, a county can do it and bill the landowner.
Omaha Sen. Burke Harr, who opposes the bill, objected to treating prairie dogs like noxious weeds. Weeds, he said, are not native, unlike prairie dogs, which "were here before we were and will probably be here after we're gone."
Harr and Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids said they have concerns about the bill.
Alice Heckman said she doesn't care what neighboring landowners do to their own prairie dogs. It's their right to shoot or poison them, if they wish, she said.
But they shouldn't have the right to obstruct her enjoyment of them or come onto her land to poison them if some migrate onto a neighbor's place, she said.
"So what's next? Are we going to pass a bill that if your squirrels are eating seeds out of the bird feeder next door, are we going to allow them to be killed?" she said. "It's the same logic."
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