Jim Carlton of the Wall Street Journal chronicles the battle. "There are about 2,790 humans to defend their turf in this farming town. They are up against a foe with superior numbers: 3,435 Utah prairie dogs, give or take a few pups.
And the critters have the law on their side.
Prairie dogs, simply "dogs" among locals, have invaded yards and lots, pockmarking lawns and gardens all around town. They have tunneled into a cemetery in a nearby town. Another indignity: The dogs' disregard for the small Parowan Airport, where they have dug tunnels under the runway, buckling it.
Officials like Dennis Gaede, a Parowan city councilman and former U.S. Marine, worry a plane will hit a hole while landing. Of the prairie dogs, he said: "We need to annihilate them."
Do that to prairie dogs here and you could go to jail. Elsewhere, they are so populous they can be legally shot on sight in many cases. But the ones here along the western edge of the Rocky Mountains aren't ordinary prairie dogs. They are Utah prairie dogs, a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Residents face penalties up to a year in prison and a $50,000 fine if they "harass, harm, pursue, hunt Utah dogs under the Act.
Parowan's biggest hope is the fence. Using about $300,000 of mostly federal money, the town in March built a 14,000-foot-long barrier above ground and a rock, concrete and chain-link barrier reaching six feet below ground.
Starting July 1, officials will trap prairie dogs on the airport grounds and then relocate them somewhere outside the fence. Airport managers say the fence is designed to keep them from returning above ground or below.
Even then, the dogs' legal rights may get in the way. During a similar relocation project last summer, federal biologists ordered workers to return 16 of 129 dogs they captured close to their existing holes because they didn't meet a capturing criterion: minimum weight of 500 grams. "I told them, 'Look, by the time it gets in the pen to get weighed, it loses a lot of weight'," Mr. Gaede said.
Prairie dogs have outmaneuvered fences before. In nearby Paragonah, population 550, people in 2008 used $60,000 in local and federal money to build a fence around the 113-year-old Paragonah Cemetery to hold off prairie dogs that were sometimes digging into coffins.
The graveyard dogs soon returned, digging under a vinyl fence built four-feet high with three feet of wire mesh below ground.
"I have had it with them," says Paragonah Mayor Connie Robinson, who has a prairie-dog doll with a target on it on the dashboard of her Chevrolet Trailblazer. "To be honest, a lot of people just go up and kill them. They are forcing people to break the law."
Why these dogs get defended at all mystifies many here. In the dozen Western states where prairie dogs live in the US, conservationists say there are as many as 20 million.
But the Utah prairie dogs are their own species.
The Utah prairie dog population numbers only about 40,000, far lower than historic levels, says Laura Romin, a Fish and Wildlife official in Salt Lake City. Poisoning, hunting and other factors lowered that to an estimated 3,300 when the federal government listed it for endangered-species protection in 1973.
Federal biologists say the cinnamon-colored Utah prairie dog, standing up to 16 inches and weighing up to three pounds, is the westernmost prairie dog in the country and geographically isolated from others. Once covering parts of nearly half the state, the Utah dogs' range has fallen to three counties.
"They are a unique part of the nation's natural heritage," says Gary Frazer, an assistant director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees them. Hawks, foxes and other animals need them as food, said Lindsey Sterling Crank, executive director of the Humane Society of the United States' Prairie Dog Coalition.
Parowan residents get that, Gaede said. " We're not mad at the dog. It's just in the wrong place."
Utah wildlife officials have moved about 26,000 prairie dogs from private property or near populated areas to remote public lands since the 1970s. They bait live traps with food such as peanut butter and rolled oats, according to the "trans-location guidelines" of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Trapped dogs are released at "carefully selected trans-location sites" away from town, often outfitted with artificial burrows, Ms. Romin said.
But those efforts have been complicated by issues including recreation shooters who illegally hunt them, said Nathan Brown, a Fish and Wildlife ecologist in Cedar City.
Prairie dogs took residence on the dusty flats around the Parowan Airport about 20 years ago, airport manager Dave Norwood said. They burrowed under the runway, buckling it in places. While there haven't been any accidents yet, "there's definitely potential," he said.
"If you land at 65 miles per hour and your wheel lands in a huge hole, you can imagine what possibly might happen," said Joy Pierce, 62, of Hollister, California, who pilots gliders at the airport.
Norwood said his workers have patched the runway as best they can. But the dogs often dig in again quickly, as evidenced by a paw print in the concrete of one patch. Officials tried relocations, but new dogs kept moving in. So the town turned to the fence.
Inspecting the barrier on a blustery spring day, Gaede said he couldn't wait until July, when the town can trap an estimated 200 prairie dogs on the property, after the "pupping" season during which federal officials want them left alone.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule on April 25 allowing the rodents to be killed "in areas where Utah prairie dogs create serious human safety concerns or disturb the sanctity of significant human burial or human cultural sites." And Utah's congressional delegation in 2011 introduced still-pending legislation allowing prairie dog killings as a last resort in towns.
Meanwhile, Parowan has unexpectedly gotten a secret weapon: After the town built the fence, a badger, one of the prairie dogs' fiercest predators, happened to be fenced in with the rodents. "I don't know if he's still there," said Gaede, "but I hope so."