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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Of Prairie Dogs

Air Date: Week of

To many people in the west, Prairie dogs are abundant pests which ranchers, developers and public land managers try to kill off. The pudgy short-tailed cousin of the squirrel lives in networks of burrows called prairie dog towns, and alongside highways. But, the perception of the prairie dog is increasingly at odds with reality. As Kelly Griffin reports from Denver, biologists are trying to convince skeptical westerners that the prairie dog, and with it the plains eco-system, are in trouble.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
To many people in the west, prairie dogs are an abundant nuisance. The pudgy, short-tailed cousin of the squirrel lives in a warren of burrows called prairie dog towns. They're common out on the range, and these days along major highways. Ranchers, developers, and many managers of public lands tend to speak of prairie dogs as pests to be eradicated. Gun groups even hold recreational prairie dog shoots. But the perception of the prairie dog is increasingly at odds with what biologists say is reality.
As Kelly Griffin reports from Denver, the prairie dogs and the plains ecosystem they support are in trouble.

(Traffic sounds)

GRIFFIN: At this busy intersection in south Denver, a 6-acre lot is covered with a prairie dog town. About 60 prairie dogs live here. But they're in the way of a planned office building, so the developers are paying to have them removed. That's where the 2-man operation known as Doggone comes in. Founder Gay Balfour spots a prairie dog at one hole and maneuvers a big yellow truck fitted with a vacuum hose into position.

(Loud vacuuming sounds)

GRIFFIN: Balfour and his partner Dave Honaker quickly place the 4-inch hose down the burrow opening. With a thump, a prairie dog is sucked up the hose and shoots into the back of the truck. Gay Balfour.

BALFOUR: What we're going to do now is, we've got one prairie dog, we're going to go ahead and lift the door, and then we'll catch him and put him in the cage with the others. There he comes.

(Loud mechanical sounds)

BALFOUR: Back into the cage. That's a little male, there. Okay, there you go.

(Squeaking prairie dog)

BALFOUR: Oh, he's a little unhappy, did you hear him squalling? He'll be all right, though.

GRIFFIN: Balfour insists his vacuum method, which came to him in a dream, does no harm to prairie dogs, though one or two of the animals he's caught this morning are bleeding slightly around the nose. And this batch of prairie dogs will have a second chance. They're being relocated to a Federal wildlife preserve in Denver. These prairie dogs might have been killed instead if so many city dwellers didn't find them so cute. Developers of high-profile projects are increasingly wary of bad publicity if they simply poison prairie dogs, so they opt for humane removal. Even so, ranchers, public land managers, and many developers still routinely poison prairie dogs. That approach, wildlife biologists say, is why the prairie dog and the ecosystem it supports are in trouble. At the turn of the century, prairie dogs occupied 100 million acres in the western plains states, says Larry Shanks of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

SHANKS: Due to major government programs of poisoning control, et cetera, plowing up, changing the habitat, those large complexes of the prairie dog ecosystem are down to less than 2 million acres in the west. So it's like 98% gone right now.

GRIFFIN: Shanks can't think of another example where a species that has so seriously declined continues to be killed off as a nuisance. On the other hand, many in the west can't believe prairie dogs are considered anything but a nuisance. Reeves Brown heads the Colorado Cattleman's Association.

BROWN: The average farming ranch out there has got acres and acres and acres of prairie dogs right out their window. It is very difficult for them to even perceive this as a viable issue. Their response is: come and take as many as you want. The prairie dog has got to be the most numerous species of anything out there.

GRIFFIN: All those prairie dogs, Brown says, eat the grass cattle need. The Fish and Wildlife Service disputes that, saying prairie dogs actually replenish grasslands by stimulating new growth. But ranchers don't believe it. Brown says ranchers need to control prairie dog populations like they do on his family's Montana ranch.

BROWN: If there's a prairie dog town that is growing pretty rapidly, we will poison some around the fringe of that just to keep them from spreading. And so our goal, and I think most landowners' goals is not to eradicate any species. It's to keep that species in check and balance with other, you know, with other activities on the land.

GRIFFIN: Not surprisingly, conservation biologists don't want to leave it to the ranchers to keep the species in balance. Groups like the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Boulder and the Predator Project in Montana are pushing the Fish and Wildlife Service to give the prairie dog protected status. Larry Shanks of the Fish and Wildlife Service agrees protecting the prairie dog ecosystem is critical. He says a healthy prairie dog town supports nearly 140 other species, including the feruginous hawk, the swift fox, and the mountain plover. As the prairie dog loses ground, the other species are threatened, too. For example, the black-footed ferret, which relies almost solely on the prairie dog for food, nearly has become extinct. A decade ago there were just 18 left. And while they're rebounding slowly in captive breeding programs, they need large prairie dog towns to thrive. Shanks says prairie dogs are still too numerous to qualify for the Endangered Species list, but, he cautions...

SHANKS: If something isn't done in the next few years, you know, it could end up being listed.

GRIFFIN: He says much will depend on whether public lands are managed to protect large prairie dog ecosystems.

SHANKS: The regional director has written to each state game and fish director, land management agencies, the BLM, the Forest Service, encouraging them to, hey, get serious about this critter, this ecosystem. Because it's in trouble.

GRIFFIN: But not all agencies are on board. Old habits, it seems, die hard.

SHANKS: I wouldn't say that we've made great stride. There are still public lands in the west that are being chemically treated to either reduce or eliminate prairie dogs from the public lands. In certain states like South Dakota, Nebraska, they even have a state law that says if a prairie dog comes up in the spring time you are required to kill it on your private land. And if you don't, the county can come in and kill it and send you the bill.

(Flowing water. Woman: "There's one or more over there.")

GRIFFIN: In the meantime, a small band of Denver area residents is doing what it can to save prairie dog towns. At a massive housing development south of Denver, volunteers for the Prairie Ecosystem Conservation Alliance flush prairie dogs from their burrows with soap and water and take them to a preserve.

(Flowing water. Child: "Here it comes. I saw it's nose!" Woman: "Here comes a prairie dog. Everybody has eyedrops? Whohas eyedrops? Eyedrops please."
A squealing prairie dog. Woman: "He's not happy.")

GRIFFIN: Paula Martin reaches her bare hand into the burrow to pull out this prairie dog. After rinsing its eyes and telling it off, she puts it in the hay-filled crate. It's a slow process but Martin, one of the leaders of the conservation group, says it's the only humane, effective way to remove the prairie dogs. She's worked nearly every weekend for the past 4 years to relocate prairie dogs. Even so, she estimates her group has saved fewer than 5% of the prairie dog towns in the Denver metro area. Still, she's hopeful.

MARTIN: I think it's all about education and allowing the public to understand what happens. What happens when they're bulldozed. What happens when they're gassed. A slow, torturous painful death that eats out their mucous membranes. And all of a sudden people realize when the prairie dogs aren't there they don't see the hawks any more. They don't see anything else that they enjoyed.

GRIFFIN: For Living on Earth, I'm Kelly Griffin in Denver.

MARTIN: There you go, guys. I'm not so scared.

(Flowing water. A latch clicks)

MARTIN: Okay, where's the next burrow? (Laughs)



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