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Prairie Dogs: The Inconvenient Animal

Monday, December 7, 2009

Before I begin, I want to thank my readers for their thoughtful and incisive comments on the last post. In reading them, I realize that there were a few things I did not make clear in my attempt to make a punchy, readable post. First, the hunters to whom I refer are hunting on a small strip of land, maybe ten acres at most, that adjoins our 80-acre one, a strip that they own. So they're taking deer that live largely on our land, something that inspires a conflicted mix of protectiveness and jealousy in me. Protectiveness, because I love watching deer (there were seven in our meadow this morning, and there's a fawn out there right now, in the snow--so plenty of them made it through!)

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.

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!"

As it turns out, an apt description of our prairie dog management practices.

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 This is Question How We Treat Animals Week. Thank you for your attention.


Three more R's we should be teaching...

Respect. Reverence. Responsibility.

Thank you for you eloquent (and beautiful) efforts, Julie! Here's hoping your messages reach those who need to hear them.

I love the little whistle-pigs. My constant advice to visiting birders hoping to see a Feruginous Hawk around here (Colorado's Front Range) is to find a good prairie dog colony first. They are winter raptor magnets!

Nobody ever wants to think about the big picture. If you destroy prairie dog towns, you disrupt entire ecosystems; it affects the hawks, burrowing owls, and all the other animals that depend on those burrows. Is it any wonder that our natural world is in such a mess? (My apologies - I am feeling cynical today.)

Julie...this blog post is well done and coincides with Ted Williams' "Incite" column in the current issue of Audubon Magazine. If more folks understood the important subtleties that make ecosystems work, there'd be more hope for reconciliation between the competing views that make species and habitat conservation so difficult. Keep up the good work.

I'm just not fond of rodents....

My friend Mary has wintering Bald Eagles and Ferruginous hawks close to her place. There is a huge dog town, so the raptors leave her beloved free range chickens alone and I get to buy farm fresh eggs.
Another friend erected old telephone poles near the dog town on his ranch, hoping for natural predator control of the prairie dogs, and to preserve the burrowing owl family and the swift foxes on his land.
Some in South Dakota do it right, but I know some of the "vaporizers", too.

Julie, I loved the pictures from TR and of the prairie dogs. I had the chance to enjoy these fearless little animals this past summer too.

I knew that prairie dogs were considered pests, but I had no idea until I read your blog of the extent of the holocaust of these animals. When we will stop the worship of the God Mammon and start to respect the rights of other creatures to exist on this earth? I understand the need to control animal populations -- don't understand the attitudes of those who find it amusing to "vaporize" or wantonly kill harmless animals.

This is an important post. Thanks for bringing this injustice to light.

Posted by Anonymous December 8, 2009 at 7:28 AM

Wonderful and important post. It reminds me of my favorite quote by Henry Beston. I have it framed in my guest bathroom:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

possumlady--just read "The Outermost House" a few months ago--loved it, and I too loved this passage.

Julie--couldn't agree with you more about both subjects, but deer certainly hit closer to home. I live on 5 acres very near state land and was thrilled to see triplets the first summer I was here. Then I found out what a problem deer can be, with no predators but us, to forest ecosystems. I don't hunt but part of me wants to, for the very reasons you stated here. I used to hate hunting and hunters until I realized there's a difference between a hunter and one who just goes out and shoots things. Hunters respect the land and the animal they're hunting. Great posts, thank you.

It is absurd that we idolize the cuteness of African Meerkats, yet classify our own version of an alert, upright, burrowing, social, mammal as varmints.

Prairie dogs need their own show on Animal Planet.
That would stop the senseless slaughter.

Floridacracker, I think they're cuter than Meerkats. I'd watch a prairie dog town show on Animal Planet! There's a lot of creative potential for that one.
Mrs. Pileated/Deb G.

Posted by Anonymous December 8, 2009 at 11:37 AM

Oooh, Floridacracker you are onto something, my friend. Or Club Prairie Dog for kids to play online. Woooooo hooo. Brilliant.
And you are so right--we fall in love with the faraway, the exotic, and know nothing--ask nothing-- of these incredible little native animals.

I was working in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan over the summer and there were researchers there studying the prairie dog population in preparation for releasing black-footed ferrets there, the first time they've been reintroduced in Canada... personally I thought the prairie dog towns were really cool, and was very disappointed never to find any burrowing owls.

I got some notice from some site or the other that the gov't has approved a new and more deadly poison for the control of prairie dogs.

What I think more people have to realise is that the most of the range that these ranchers have their cattle and sheep on belong to the people of the United States. Most of them are leasing federal land at WAY below market rates. It's NOT their land, and it's not theirs to do what they see fit with. I own it. Julie owns it. We all own it. They are our tenants. It's like that 1872 mining law that still hasn't been gets my blood boiling.

Burrowing animals do a great service in keeping soils churned and mixed, in effect, keeping them young, and more productive.

And hunting..we have deer like a convenience store has Reese's Pieces. I could not pull a trigger on an animal. I have no problem with licensed hunters going after deer. The understory of the forest preserves here are trashed by them, in fact, in some places, the only areas that are not overbrowsed are in exclosures set up by the FP. The Forest Preserve District in my county sends marksman out by cover of darkness to cull deer...the public would never go for a hunt. The next county over, the state park does have a bow season, so public access is cut off for a month.

Slob hunters...are a disgrace. They are why more private property owners don't open their land to them. I have a friend who owns considerable land in WI who used to allow hunters in. Then she started noticing all the piles of trash they left behind, how they never dug pits for their toileting, how her barn cats would be shot right up against their barn(cuz I guess a yellow tabby looks just like a deer)and the final straw was buckshot in the siding of her house. She has grandchildren. Now she and I go out every spring/early summer and pull down tree stands. Her land is clearly marked no hunting, no trespassing now, and she uses the "bucket method," LOL!

Your mom was born in 1920 too?

I sure appreciate all I learn on this site. I thought prairie dogs were ubiquitous, for no reason other than that I was immortalized (in our small family) when my picture showed up on the North Dakota 75th Anniversary road map (was that 1963?), feeding a prairie dog by hand in the T.Roosevelt Park. And until today, I just happily assumed they're all over the place.

It's discouraging.

Thanks for drawing attention to this problem. In addition to contending with hunters, now prairie dogs also have to deal with plague (Yersinia pestis), which occurs at certain natural background rates in the West but has broken out and devastated populations in South Dakota. It harms not only prairie dogs, but the highly endangered black-footed ferrets which live within the prairie dog towns. I listened to researcher Travis Livieri of Prairie Wildlife Research talk about this problem at a conference a few weeks ago, and then I blogged about his talk here:

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