PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Dozens of ranchers asked the South Dakota Supreme Court on Monday to reinstate their lawsuit seeking state compensation for damage from prairie dogs.
Ranchers in an area near Badlands National Park claim they lost money when prairie dogs spread from the public land to their property, destroying wheat fields and pastures. The lawyer for three dozen of them, James Hurley of Rapid City, said state law clearly requires state officials to control prairie dogs that have moved onto private land and to set up a way to compensate landowners for damage if the animals spread beyond specific acreage limits.
But the state didn't do enough to control the prairie dogs and hasn't paid the ranchers, Hurley said.
"This is awful. It's a financial disaster and it cries out for financial relief,'' Hurley told the Supreme Court.
But Douglas Abraham, a lawyer for the state, said a circuit judge was correct in throwing out the case because legal doctrine has established that the state is immune from such lawsuits unless it agrees to be sued.
"The state is also the only entity that can waive the immunity'' Abraham said.
The hearing at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell was broadcast through the court's website. The court will issue a written decision later.
The ranchers live in an area around the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and graze cattle on private land and pastures leased from the federal government. The prairie dog population expanded after controls were relaxed with the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets, a prairie dog-eating species once thought extinct. The area was chosen to reintroduce ferrets because it had a substantial prairie dog population.
Also, poisoning was restricted while federal officials considered listing prairie dogs as endangered or threatened. They eventually decided against listing the black-tailed prairie dog as endangered or threatened because the animals showed signs of rebounding from earlier population declines.
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