Nebraska senator promises new push for prairie dog bill

A Nebraska lawmaker known as an animal welfare advocate failed in his quest Tuesday to protect a prairie rodent that some ranchers view as pests, but vowed to raise the issue again.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha tried to persuade fellow lawmakers to repeal a law that allows county officials to kill black-tailed prairie dogs on private property if a neighbor complains. Senators voted 21-17 in favor of the bill, four votes short of what was needed to advance it.

Chambers said current state law doesn’t provide adequate due-process rights to landowners who don’t mind the animals on their property because it lets county officials venture onto land without a warrant or proper notification. The law is also redundant because the U.S. Department of Agriculture already offers a similar service to analyze and manage pests when they infringe on farmland, he said.

“This law can be set into motion by a vindictive neighbor with an unsupported claim,” he said. “It’s one of the most atrocious pieces of trash that I have ever seen.”

Chambers said he plans to raise the issue again, possibly as an amendment to another bill later this year. A similar measure came close to passing in 2015, but was derailed at the last minute.

Chambers, the self-titled “Defender of the Downtrodden,” is trying to undo many of the animal-related bills that were approved during four years when term limits forced him out of the Legislature, starting in 2009. He returned in 2013.

Chambers has repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, championed bills that would outlaw mountain lion hunting. He also sponsored a law in 2014 that lets judges impose a five-year ban on animal ownership for people convicted of animal cruelty or neglect. The law was inspired by a case involving an eastern Nebraska puppy mill that a judge described as an “animal Auschwitz,” with dogs living in cages crusted with feces and urine.

The 2012 prairie dog law gives counties the option to control their numbers 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. Only Sheridan county in northwest Nebraska has done so.

Chambers said the poison commonly used to kill prairie dogs could also hurt eagles, hawks and ferrets, all of which interact with the rodents. During a 2015 hearing on a similar bill, an organic farmer testified that having to use poison on his land could cause him to lose federal certification.

Black-tailed prairie dogs are native to Nebraska and help preserve the region’s ecology, but some ranchers argue they ruin valuable land. Opponents of the current law contend farmers can control the critters with less invasive methods, such as thick brush along property lines or posts where predatory eagles and falcons can perch to keep the prairie dogs away.

“We’re not interfering with your right to shoot them with your .22” rifle, said Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha.

Some rural senators said the state law gives counties a tool to manage the resilient rodents that spread quickly, damaging crops and tearing up grassland in a state that prizes agriculture.

“I understand people’s passion to want to help this poor little innocent animal,” said Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon. “But the reality of it is, they bring with them disease. They bring with them destruction of property.”

Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, a farmer, said some of his neighbors own small patches of rangeland with uncontrolled prairie dogs.

“That’s OK, as long as they stay on their property,” Hughes said. “But when they begin to infringe on my property and begin destroying my crops, then I have a problem.”


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