Prairie Dogs Under Attack (6/99)

The sun rises over a vast expanse of prairie. The wind blows and the wild grass sways, as if to music. With its seeming endless repetition and aching beauty, the great prairie has captured the American imagination for generations. The image is peaceful, a scene of tranquillity and rhythm, a place to dream.

But the western plains aren’t as tranquil as they appear. A war is being waged against the short and mixed grass prairie, and the most brutal battle centers on the prairie dog, arguably the ecosystem’s cornerstone.

More than 99 percent of the West’s original prairie dog population is gone. That represents a 50 percent decline since 1995, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, scientists put the remaining population at less than 1 percent of its historic high of five billion.

Of the five species, only the Mexican is protected under the Endangered Species Act. The Utah is listed as threatened, and the black-tailed is undergoing a final biological status review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for possible listing under the Act. Now extinct in Arizona, it’s found only in small pockets elsewhere.

Dubbed "the pest of the West," prairie dogs have traditionally been viewed as expendable varmints. Once, they roamed approximately 500 million acres from Mexico to Canada. That range has been reduced by over 99 percent. Since more than 160 species depend upon the prairie dog, its elimination may ensure the demise of the Great Plains. Animals like the coyote, badger, black widow, burrowing owl, and mountain plover turn to the prairie dog for food and shelter. Even the fate of the most endangered mammal in North America " the black-footed ferret " is directly related. In an ironic twist, the very same federal government that spends $15 million annually on an intensive black-footed ferret recovery program doles out millions for the extermination of prairie dogs.

Powerful lobbyists and the fear of lawsuits have locked the government in a destructive alliance with ranchers. Ranching issues aren’t restricted to private property, but spill over into public lands where ranchers have exclusive leasing rights. In an effort to placate them, federal programs begun in 1915 sanction and support eradication. Literally millions of fertile prairie grasslands have been contaminated.

State and local governments are equally culpable. Many states conduct widespread eradication. Those with a large numbers of ranchers don’t just permit the extermination of colonies; they require it. Take South Dakota. Thanks to a state mandate, about a half-million acres of territory was poisoned in the early 1980s, effectively killing off the largest remaining prairie dog town in the US.

Excuses for Extermination

Rancher rancor rests upon three claims: 1) prairie dogs denude cattle grazing grass, 2) their burrows catch cattle feet and break legs, and 3) they carry the bubonic plague. None of these claims stand up to scrutiny.

Evidence shows that the prairie dogs’ mowing of grasslands actually weeds out non-native grasses, encouraging healthy ones to grow in their place. Rather than stripping grasslands, prairie dogs replenish them by fertilizing the soil. Studies also show that bison and cows prefer to graze in prairie dog turf.

Concerning the second claim, while legends abound, there has been no credible evidence that a cow has ever fallen into a burrow and broken its leg. And as for the charge that prairie dogs are plague carriers, like all animals, they are victims of the disease, which is spread by fleas. Since 1949, only 23 out of nearly 500 cases have been linked to prairie dogs, according to the Center for Disease Control. In fact, the greater threat to human safety is the chemicals used to poison them, including aluminum phosphide, which the federal government bans from contact with food storage areas because of potential health risks.

Yet, despite such facts, ranchers’ fear and loathing of prairie dogs not only continue, they have even prompted the emergence of a new method of extermination. Gone are the days when ranchers had to spend big money on poisons and bulldozers. Now they simply pick up the phone and invite the Varmint Militia. The South Dakota-based group travels where needed, yahooing through the blood sport of exploding prairie dogs with high-speed rifles. Proud of its hobby, the group has made a video showing shooters in action. Limbs and decapitated heads fly through the air, blood spews everywhere. Members jokingly call their outings Frequent Flier Clubs.

Unwanted Neighbors

While ranchers and the government are traditional enemies to the prairie dogs, an additional threat has emerged in recent times: human development. As western cities sprawl, prairie dogs find themselves stranded in seas of suburbia. It’s not uncommon to see small groups clustered near fast food restaurants, behind mall parking lots, and along busy roadsides. But more of these "citified" colonies are facing bulldozers, vacuuming (a system where the animals are sucked into a hose alive and mangled before being dumped elsewhere to die), and gassing to make room for malls, subdivisions, and city parks.

And it’s not just a conservative, small town phenomenon. Even "progressive" cities like Santa Fe, New Mexico, are killing colonies. Last spring, for instance, a group of Santa Fe residents, led by People for Native Ecosystems (PNE), a local environmental organization, charged the city council with unjustly poisoning a prairie dog colony to make room for a ballpark. PNE had previously been assured an opportunity to relocate the animals (at no public expense). But the city reneged, opting instead for the more expedient, though more costly, method of gassing.

Santa Fe’s choice was Fumitoxin, a chemical with the active ingredient aluminum phosphide. A single outspoken city council member, Patti Bushee, expressed concern, citing both humane reasons (the gas leads to a long and painful death) and fear that traces of the toxin might linger on the ballpark, posing health risks to children and pets. To date, no testing or clean up has been planned for the site, and a ban has yet to be placed on the gas.

While Santa Fe’s record is indicative of the destructive mindset throughout the West, that’s not the case everywhere. For instance, during the late summer of 1997, Hutchinson, a small town in the center of Kansas, proved that relocation is a viable option. Pressed to select a baseball field site, the city settled upon an area inhabited by a prairie dog colony. Seen by many members of the town council as pests, they were slated for gassing. But after one resident wrote a protest letter to the local paper, community pressure forced the council to find an alternate plan.

The Denver-based Prairie Ecosystem Conservation Alliance (PECA), a group whose main focus is the rescue of threatened prairie dogs, was invited to help. Together with the Albuquerque-based Great Plains Restoration Council (GPRC), local school children, and concerned residents, PECA rescued approximately 130 prairie dogs from the lot.

The animals were relocated in three batches to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Stafford, Kansas. While the first steps in the rescue mission went well, relocation for two of the groups proved unsuccessful. Many believe the dogs weren’t given the right ecosystem, claiming the grass was too high to scout for predators. Since the refuge " the only protected area in Kansas " is already filled to capacity, predators are too numerous for existing prey. The third group wasn’t marked, so their fate is also uncertain. However, since they were placed with an existing colony, chances for survival are stronger. Overall, the attempt demonstrates the inadequacy of existing safe havens and underscores the need for additional protected prairie acreage.

Things to Come

While the trend toward relocation and protection is encouraging, it shouldn’t be taken for granted. The prairie dog population is at an all time low, with scientists predicting further decline, while the plains are already feeling the effects. The near extinction of the black-footed ferret and the decline of the swift fox and ferruginous hawk populations forecast what’s to come if efforts to protect the prairie dog aren’t accelerated.

Public pressure can and has shamed local governments into rethinking their approach. Meanwhile, national campaigns are underway, urging the federal government to stop capitulating to the rancher minority and killing prairie dog colonies in national parks and public lands. So far, however, the government remains rigid.

One ray of light in an otherwise bleak scenario is the emergence of the Southern Plains Land Trust (SPLT), an affiliate of the GPRC and Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, a group whose mission is to secure protection for native prairie wildlife through the purchase of private land. SPLT recently bought 1280 acres near Comanche National Grassland in Colorado. This acreage represents the initial phase of a grassland restoration project involving prairie dogs, bison, wild echinacea, and other natives.

Unless a major public effort begins soon, however, the prairie dog is likely to go the way of the buffalo. And once that happens, the last of the great American prairies will very likely follow.

Andrea C. Poe is a journalist based in Maryland.