Jealousy? Yes. I am jealous of people who have the desire and wherewithal to take wild meat off their own land rather than buying sad, often tasteless bits of cow or pig, raised miserably in feedlots and stanchions and packed in Styrofoam and Saran. I'm not there yet. I may never get there. I have never learned to use a gun, and I'm not sure I have the right stuff to point it at a living animal and end its life to feed myself. But a big part of me wishes I were. Because to me, hunting on your own land makes some kind of elemental, vital sense.
My beef had simply to do with these particular hunters' bad behavior, being inconsiderate and sloppy. With being confined to my house for a solid week in gray old December. With the disgust at having to guard my tender boy from the shock of seeing a bunch of carcasses in his driveway. That's it. I believe in that kind of subsistence hunting; I see the need for it in every nipped-off branch and wildflower in the forest understory, and I wish I could do it. I'm not bashing hunting; I'm bashing bad behavior.
With that, on to North Dakota, and prairie dogs, and a whole 'nother kind of hunting, a kind I do not believe in.
Adorable, cuddly beasties or scurrilous varmints? You either love prairie dogs (and I suspect that 99% of my readers fall into that camp with me) or hate them. How can this be? Prairie dogs are universally persecuted for their way of life—of turning prairie or pastureland into a honeycomb of burrows and chambers. I have to confess that a prairie dog town is not a handsome thing, until you begin to watch the little animals going about their busyness, until you glance up to see the ferruginous hawk circling overhead, and down to see the gopher snake slithering into a burrow, or a burrowing owl claiming one hole as its own.
For there is a whole suite of animals that benefit from those burrows, including snakes, foxes, burrowing owls, Swainson’s and ferruginous hawks, and badgers. Most notably, black-footed ferrets depend on prairie dogs. This vanishingly endangered weasel was thought to be extinct until a farmer’s dog brought one to a Meteetse, Wyoming doorstep in 1981. Perhaps 200 black-footed ferrets survive in the wild, bolstered by an aggressive captive-breeding and release program. Nationwide, only six black-tailed prairie dog populations now exist that are large enough to support reintroduction of black-footed ferrets. The ferret will always be endangered, because the prairie dogs will always be kept on the brink of extinction. Read on...
From 1916-1920-- the year of my mother’s birth-- state, Federal and private agencies spread strychnine on 47 million acres of prairie dog towns, from North Dakota to New Mexico. New Mexico’s Animas Valley hosted a prairie dog town that, in 1908, comprised 6.4 million animals spread over 1,000 square miles. By 1938, the town had contracted to 50 acres. Between 1920 and 1958, when I was born, North Dakota had reduced its prairie dog towns from over two million acres to about 20,000 acres; by the time I was in college, in 1978, there were only 9,000 North Dakota acres in dogtowns. South Dakota, my natal state, has less than 300,000 acres in prairie dog towns, but a third of the continent’s surviving animals are in that state.
I've only seen a handful of prairie dog towns in my life, all small--minuscule by comparison with their former numbers. This one in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park was a special delight, because the animals were acclimated to humans, and we could watch their behavior, which is charming by any measure. It was a stark contrast to the behavior of prairie dogs that I watched on a remnant bit of fallow farmland in Nebraska. Those animals simply disappeared when my car pulled up, and I saw no more than the tops of their heads until I drove away and got out the telescope. Even then, they were on high alert, barking and flinging themselves into the air to warn the others. They had clearly been persecuted, and were clinging to life on this prairie remnant.
My maternal grandfather Klaas Clarence Ruigh, who was born in Firth, Nebraska, took my mother to see prairie dogs in Nebraska when she was a little girl in the 1930’s. Prairie dogs were already rare then, and had to be sought out. Everywhere they occur, prairie dogs are hunted as varmints. A Google search for "prairie dog hunting" in 2009 turns up 2,160,000 web pages (up from 167,000 in 2007). This is an ongoing, highly popular activity. Prairie dogs, unlike the deer our neighbors shoot, are never eaten. They are simply wasted, shot at great distances with high-powered rifles, sometimes aided by laser technology, and left where they lie. Our classification of prairie dogs as “varmints” provides justification that borders on religious fervor to the shooters (I will not call them hunters) who make it their mission to “vaporize” them wherever they still occur.
A mother prairie dog bringing home the vegetal bacon.
A mother prairie dog bringing home the vegetal bacon.
She's mobbed by her litter of pups, who fall to the feast. I was reminded of a fox bringing a duck to its den.
Prairie dogs provide food and burrows vital to the endangered swift fox and black-footed ferret, as well as the declining burrowing owl. Why should a mammal that by any argument is rare and local and confined to relict populations still be the target of indiscriminate shooting? The simple answer is that the prairie dog is an inconvenient animal. It is unable to live on the fringes of agriculture; its very nature is to stake out a town and inhabit it, consuming acres of land in so doing. Cows and horses fall into prairie dog burrows and break legs; tractors break axles.
Prairie dogs are expensive animals. And so they go. I recently read a news item saying that the state of South Dakota (which has one third of the global population) had resolved to keep prairie dog numbers at a level just high enough to prevent their being listed as endangered. This is not charity or forward-thinking wildlife management; this is pragmatism. For when the prairie dog becomes endangered enough to make the Federal list, landowners are forced to protect it. Nobody with an economic interest in his land wants that. Thus, we keep them on the edge of the abyss.
We actually want them to stop just short of dying out altogether. If learning this and looking at my photos of prairie dog life causes you to stop and think, to question the ethics and motives of wildlife management agencies; whether state, Federal, or private; to challenge yourself to wonder whether we're aiming for maximum biodiversity or maximum economic benefit in our wildlife management decisions, then this post has been a good day's work.
A Red Hatter, appreciating the protected prairie dogs at Theodore Roosevelt National Monument. She made me smile. Her bumper sticker reads, "It's All About ME!"
THIS JUST IN: Thanks to Adam Zorn, naturalist at Westmoreland Sanctuary who alerted me to Ted Williams' excellent "Incite" column in this month's Audubon Magazine. I've always loved Williams' take; he's like a retriever who picks up the biggest, gnarliest log in the deepest mud and lugs it up to you. I'm honored to have experienced a simultaneous need to talk about what we do to prairie dogs (although Ted probably wrote his piece months ago). You can read the entire text here. Go TED.
Despite appearances, this is not Bash a Hunter Week on Julie Zickefoose.blogspot.com. This is Question How We Treat Animals Week. Thank you for your attention.