PIERRE (AP) — After losing a court battle, some ranchers in southwestern South Dakota are asking the Legislature for help in dealing with prairie dogs that leave public land and invade their private ranches.
Charles Kruse of Interior said the damage from prairie dogs has decreased in recent years because many of them died from plague, but ranchers want to change state law to make sure the state is required to help control prairie dogs or give financial help to ranchers hurt by invading critters.
Ranchers in an area near Badlands National Park have been trying to get state compensation for damages caused by prairie dogs. Dozens of ranchers filed a lawsuit in 2005 seeking state money. They argued that they lost money when prairie dogs spread from public land, particularly the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, and destroyed private pastures that were needed to support cattle herds.
The lawsuit contended that South Dakota law required state officials to control prairie dogs that moved onto private land and to set up a way to compensate landowners for damage if the animals spread beyond specific acreage limits. The ranchers said the state failed to control the prairie dogs and did not pay them for their losses.
The South Dakota Supreme Court recently upheld a circuit judge’s decision to throw out the lawsuit based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which says the state is immune from such lawsuits unless it agrees to be sued. The state’s highest court said the state was protected against the lawsuit because South Dakota law does not expressly grant anyone the right to sue the state for failing to control or manage prairie dogs.
The area’s prairie dog population expanded after controls were relaxed with the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets, a prairie-dog eating species once thought extinct. The ferrets were released in the area because it had a substantial population of prairie dogs.
One bill introduced in the House this legislative session would waive the state’s immunity from lawsuits resulting from a failure to control prairie dogs.
A second measure would require that the state Agriculture Department provide at least $150,000 a year to control prairie dogs or make incentive payments to ranchers. The Game, Fish and Parks Department would have to provide at least $130,000 a year.
If the two agencies failed to spend that money by Oct. 15 in any year, they would have to provide money or help to ranchers who apply for it. Ranchers who apply but don’t get help within a year could then go to court seeking to force the state agencies to provide that assistance.
No hearing date has been set for the two measures.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he hasn’t read the bills, but he believes a way can be found to deal with damage caused by prairie dogs without the state giving up its immunity to lawsuit.
Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, said he introduced the bills for the ranchers after they lost the Supreme Court case. The bill seeks to make the state agencies comply with their responsibility to control prairie dogs, he said.
Russell said prairie dogs are now found on about a half million acres in the area he represents, which is Fall River, Custer and Pennington counties. Ranchers have lost a lot of money because prairie dogs have eaten the grass on which their livestock depend, he said.
‘‘The unfortunate thing is these people just feel like they’ve been abandoned by everyone,’’ Russell said.
Kruse said he was disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision because state law mandates that state agencies control prairie dogs that leave public land and invade private land. The constitution also bars the government from taking land or damaging it without providing just compensation to owners, he said.
The problem for ranchers in the area south of Badlands National Park was worse about five years ago after a prolonged drought had caused the prairie dogs to spread, but the population dropped after they got hit by plague, Kruse said.
Kruse said prairie dogs that came from public land now occupy about 20 acres of his private land, but they were spread over about 950 acres of his ranch a few years ago. He said he had to sell many of his cattle in the drought years when prairie dogs overran much of his land, but he had now built back up to about 100 cows that produce calves each year.