Prairie dog bill highlights urban -- rural split; child abuse hotline posting discussed

Sen. Ernie Chambers speaks on prairie dogs (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 23, 2018 - 5:46pm

A proposal on managing prairie dogs produced an urban-rural split Wednesday in the Nebraska Legislature. And a public hearing was held on posting child abuse hotline numbers in schools.

Nebraska’s Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Management Act has been controversial ever since it passed six years ago. It was passed in response to complaints from Sheridan County in the state’s panhandle that a landowner was not controlling prairie dogs on his property. They were migrating to other land and digging holes that cattle could fall into and break their legs. The act allows counties to hire people and send them onto an offending property owner’s land to control prairie dogs at the owner‘s expense. But critics like Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said it should be repealed because it lacks safeguards to protect property rights. “Someone unannounced, because of a complaint, comes on your property no matter where you live and starts poisoning something in your ground or around your property. That’s what this law allows that person to do,” Krist said.

Sen. Dan Hughes was among rural senators who argued the law should remain on the books. Hughes farms near the rural community of Venango, on the border with Colorado. He said prairie dogs are a pest that needs to be controlled. “They’re very destructive. I don’t have livestock. But they are infringing upon my crop land. They take out my wheat crop,” Hughes said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha sponsored the effort to repeal the act. Chambers says counties have always been able to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, to help control pests. Chambers says the Nebraska law goes too far, by involving county attorneys in proceedings that can lead to a property’s being foreclosed. “That is crazy and it happens nowhere else in any law: a civil matter becomes a criminal matter without any court involvement anywhere along the way,” Chambers said.

Sen. Curt Friesen of rural Henderson agrees property rights are important. But Friesen said repealing the law would hurt the owners of property threatened by prairie dogs migrating from a neighbor’s land. Friesen added that property rights are regulated all the time, for example, by requiring spraying of noxious weeds. And he said a prairie dog infestation can result in expensive damage. “It can impact land prices and property values, no different from having a junkyard in the middle of town when your neighbor wants to collect things that makes it unsightly and your property values go down,” Friesen said.

After several hours of debate, the bill failed to advance on a vote of 21-17, four short of the 25 needed. Of the 21 senators who voted for reapeal, all but three were from Omaha, Lincoln, or suburban Sarpy County. Of the 17 opposed to repeal, all but 5 were from rural areas outside those counties.

How senators representing different areas voted:

O=Outside Lancaster, Douglas, or Sarpy Cos.

L=Lancaster County, including Lincoln

D= Douglas County, including Omaha

S= Sarpy County

Wednesday afternoon, the Education Committee held a public hearing on proposals to require or encourage schools to put up posters advertising a hotline to call with reports of child abuse or neglect. Among those supporting the proposal was Maddie Fennell. She’s now executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association. But six years ago, Fennell said, she was teaching fourth grade at an Omaha elementary school to a class including a boy she called by the pseudonym “Jeff.”

“One day “Jeff” came to class with a bruise on his cheek and said his father had smacked him. I personally contacted the child abuse hotline, filed a report and even sent photographs of the bruises. The children were not removed from the home. My principal was so incensed that she brought in the social worker and demanded action. But nothing happened,” Fennell recalled.  “This year three weeks before Christmas I was contacted by a family specialist with the Nebraska Families Collaborative who informed me that Jeff and his sister were now in foster care and all parental rights were being terminated. It took five years for these children to be removed from the home.”

In spite of that, Fennell said posting the number of the hotline would be a good first step, adding more reporting, for example to law enforcement, may be needed.  

Sen. John McCollister, sponsor of one of the bills, said a majority of states require schools to post their state’s child abuse hotline number. McCollister said nationwide, 700,000 children are abused or neglected each year, with 75 percent of those cases involving neglect, 17 percent physical abuse, and 8 percent sexual abuse. A parent is also the perpetrator in 75 percent of the cases, McCollister said.

McCollister’s bill would leave it up to schools to decide whether to post the hotline number, which is 1-800-652-1999. Another bill, by Sen. Justin Wayne, would make such posting mandatory. The committee took no immediate action on either bill.





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