The Prairie Dog Wars

Is the prairie dog a grass-eating varmint that threatens cattle, or a vital keystone species? The federal governmnet must soon decide.

A few years ago, Rich Grable, better known as "Mr. Dog," invited me to join him as an observer for a morning of "varminting" on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. The targets -- stocky ground squirrels called prairie dogs for their puppylike bark. These were black-tailed prairie dogs, the most social and widespread of the five species -- once abundant on the Great Plains from southern Saskatchewan to northern Mexico.

Mr. Dog stuck the muzzle of his Remington .222 out the truck window, resting it on a Styrofoam pad partly melted by barrel heat. Crack. He cut a prairie dog in half, sending its hindquarters cartwheeling into the air. "Dead," he announced, punching his dashboard-mounted kill counter. Two babies stood beside a burrow, one with its paws on its sibling's shoulders. Crack. Both exploded in red mist. "Can ya hear it go plop?" he cackled. Crack. A few targets dragged themselves back into their burrows, minus major body parts. "I done somethin' to him," shouted Mr. Dog. "I done somethin' to him, too." Grable has earned his nickname; he once killed 75 straight before missing, and he's killed 452 in one day, 8,635 in a single year.

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Mr. Dog is not aberrant among rural Westerners; he thinks of himself as a conservationist performing a public service by saving grass from rodent incisors -- "prairie dog control without poison," as he puts it. In fact, he appreciates most wildlife, yet he's part of a ranching culture that sees the prairie dog as a divine typo in need of white-out.

The job is 99 percent complete. Once the black-tailed prairie dog occupied at least 100 million acres of prairie; now it lives on about 800,000. But suddenly there is hope for this animal in the form of the most powerful of all federal wildlife-management tools -- the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a petition to list the species as "threatened," a designation less critical than "endangered," but one that would end poisoning and varminting on public land.

What is most remarkable about America's war on prairie dogs is that it's based entirely on a myth -- the scientifically discredited notion that the rodents compete with cattle for grass. Walk through any "dog town," as the colonies are called, and you'll see how the superstition got started. The landscape is cratered with burrows, pocked with piles of dirt, and vegetation appears sparse. Prairie dogs chop down a lot of foliage to get a better view of their predators. In fact, they do best in overgrazed areas.

But studies have shown that there is no significant difference in weight between cattle that graze outside and inside dog towns. And according to a literature review by grassland ecologist Craig Knowles, "there has been no documented evidence that prairie dogs compete with domestic livestock under densities typically encountered on the Great Plains." By turning over and aerating the soil, prairie dogs encourage vegetation that, while sparser than the grass outside dog towns, is actually more nutritious. This is why Knowles and other researchers have repeatedly documented cattle and wild ungulates seeking out prairie-dog towns. "If prairie dogs are so bad," inquires Knowles, "why do cows like them so much? The ranchers all know where their cattle stay during the summertime. On prairie-dog towns. They don't have a very good response to that question."

Varminting is perhaps the fastest-growing sport in the West. You can kill as many black-tailed prairie dogs as you want 365 days a year, except in Arizona, where they've been wiped out. Carcasses aren't retrieved -- just left on the prairie to rot or be scavenged. In the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in South Dakota, the U.S. Forest Service reported a sixfold increase in varminting excursions from 1992 to 1998. And after only eight years of existence, the South Dakota-based Varmint Hunters Association, which concentrates its firepower on prairie dogs but uses other unpopular species as living targets, has approximately 50,000 members. Before and after the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America in South Dakota last June, members were treated to prairie-dog hunts by gun manufacturers.

Varminting reflects an Old West belief that there are good animals and bad animals and that nature can and should be reengineered by humans. Despite their prodigious effort, recreational shooters have been far less effective in eliminating prairie dogs than federal, state, county, and private pest-control agents, who have been dousing the Great Plains with poison since the 1920s. "We've seen a huge and rapid decline in prairie dogs in the 1980s and 1990s," declares Dr. Steve Torbit of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the group that filed the petition to list the black-tailed prairie dog as threatened. "I've seen places on federally managed lands where prairie dogs have virtually disappeared because of poisoning campaigns." These animals are exterminated on public lands at taxpayer expense for the presumed benefit of private ranchers, who then are allowed to fatten their cows on that land at cut-rate fees.

Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana classify prairie dogs as agricultural pests and either permit or require their eradication. In some counties, if you don't poison off your prairie dogs, pest-control agents will do it for you, then make you pay for their work. Recently a bill was introduced in the South Dakota Legislature to change the animal's name to "prairie rat."

Scientists refer to the black-tailed prairie dog as a "keystone" species. The analogy derives from the construction of stone arches -- pull out the keystone and you get the whole structure on your head. For example, the black-footed ferret, arguably the most endangered mammal in North America, preys on prairie dogs and uses their tunnels; it cannot exist outside large, healthy dog towns. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), prairie dogs provide food and/or habitat for 59 vertebrate species -- 29 birds, 21 mammals, 5 reptiles, and 4 amphibians. "The consequence of not growing more prairie dogs is a cascade of new listings under the Endangered Species Act," says Torbit.

In the early 1990s, before he signed on with the NWF, Torbit ran the black-footed ferret recovery program for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Just to move ferrets down from the endangered to the threatened list, the recovery plan called for establishing 10 self-sustaining populations around the West. So Torbit's team invited biologists from the prairie-dog states to Denver for a habitat-mapping session. "In this vast, unoccupied American West, where we reportedly used to have three billion prairie dogs, we didn't have 10 colonies big enough for black-footed ferrets," he says. "And the situation has gotten worse since then because of the poison campaign."

But the fortunes of war may be turning. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced in March that the NWF's petition merited further review. That means the service should decide whether to recommend listing prairie dogs as a threatened species early this year. Last April, the federation pointed out to two federal agencies -- the Forest Service and the BLM -- the absurdity of exterminating a species while it is being reviewed for protection. Both agencies agreed and have imposed a moratorium on poisoning and recreational shooting of prairie dogs on land they administer until Fish and Wildlife makes its decision. Most of the poisoning, however, takes place on private and state land, often under the direction of yet another federal program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services. Even if the prairie dog were given threatened status, some landowners could still get permission from Fish and Wildlife to control prairie-dog populations if the service agreed it were necessary.

There is restrained optimism among advocates of the prairie ecosystem, but little of it issues from the grizzled veterans of the dog wars. One eminent biologist, who requested anonymity, recently told me what is likely to happen in the case of prairie dogs, given past scenarios involving other species. Once a group petitions to have a species listed as threatened or endangered, state congressional delegations resist on behalf of inconvenienced special interest groups. The states are then allowed to come up with a "management plan" of their own that supposedly will make listing unnecessary. Meanwhile, the species continues to decline. "The states," says the biologist, "will do virtually nothing. So we'll be revisiting this issue in a few years."

If he's right, the pertinent question now becomes: Do the black-tailed prairie dog and the arch of life it supports have that kind of time?

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