Making Room for Prairie Dogs

They feel like little angels crawling up your arm,” says Prairie Dogs ColoradoJarid Manos. He is looking not to the heavenly blue Kansas sky above, however, but to an empty lot below, in a town called Hutchinson. There are probably 80 or more “angels” in this lot, Manos figures. And he wants to find them all.

Sporting a raised-fist Earth First! tattoo on his shoulder, Manos reaches into one of the hundred or so dirt-ringed holes that dot the empty lot. His colleague Paula Martin, dirt smears on her face, uses a hose from a nearby water truck to guide a mixture of water and biodegradable dish soap into the opening. Using her fingers to aerate the water, Martin creates frothy suds that fill the burrow below. The plan is that the suds will irritate the eyes of any inhabitants and force them to crawl to the surface, where Manos is waiting. Minutes later, soap suds begin to pillow out onto the ground and Manos nods his head. He feels something crawling onto his hand. Another angel. He deftly scoops up the critter, pulls it free of its home, and holds it aloft by the back of its neck.

Manos might consider his prey a gift from heaven, but it’s a creature that many Westerners would call the devil: a black-tailed prairie dog. A wet, soapy and none-too-happy prairie dog. Manos holds the animal still while Martin dabs at its face with a towel and squirts saline solution in its eyes to clear out the soap. The animal is then placed in a dog carrier half full of hay. Manos checks the hole for stragglers, and he and Martin rise from their mud-caked knees to drag the hose to another prairie dog mound.

As they move across the lot, Manos and Martin are surrounded by 30 or more people: animal-loving volunteers, a troop of seventh-graders and curious neighborhood residents. Also tagging along are newspaper reporters and two television crews complete with carefully coifed reporters who later do stand-ups while gingerly holding wet and wriggling prairie dogs. Prairie dogs have been big news all summer in this central Kansas town, and everyone wants to witness firsthand the fate of these controversial creatures. Some in the crowd try to anticipate which hole will be flushed out next, and rush there to stake out a good viewing spot. Others opt to stick as close as possible to Manos and Martin, at times making it nearly impossible for them to move their equipment. Once they settle in at the next hole, parents lift small children onto shoulders and newsmen hoist heavy television cameras over the crowd. Everyone wants to see.

Manos and Martin are astonished by all this attention. Members of the Denver-based Prairie Ecosystem Conservation Alliance, they spend every weekend trying to save
and relocate prairie dogs, and rarely does anyone pay much attention at all. They have come to this particular lot–driving all night from Colorado–to save a bunch of prairie dogs that the Hutchinson town council had decided must make way for a new baseball field. Some council members wanted to simply kill the pesky rodents and be done with it. A few residents, however, didn’t agree, and one wrote a letter of protest to the newspaper. “It is unfortunate that the elected council of the city of Hutchinson has no compassion on the matter of life,” wrote Janet Laird, an animal lover who lives near the lot. Laird, looking for alternatives to killing the animals, urged Martin’s group to come to Kansas. The city council finally agreed to hold off on the ball field construction and even supplied water for the rescue operation.

Manos and Martin and their newly trained local volunteers, including Laird and her friends, work the field all day Saturday and Sunday, taking few breaks from the 90-degree heat. By Sunday night 76 animals have been loaded into dog carriers and are ready for transport to their new home. Monday morning, a caravan of volunteers escorts the animals out of town, past fields of wheat and sunflowers, to the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Stafford, Kansas. There, the prairie dogs are placed inside a couple of large, steel water troughs from which the bottoms have been removed and which are topped with chicken wire. Food, water and a few starter holes have all been provided. The hope is that the animals will be safe from predators here until they can dig burrows. Dave Hilley, manager of the refuge, estimates that, if all goes well, they will dig out of this protective enclave in a few hours, by which time “they’ll have some ownership of the holes.”

Hutchinson’s debate over the fate of a prairie dog town is one that is becoming increasingly common in Western states. Ranchers have long despised the animal, believing it eats grass rightly meant for cattle, and that its burrows and entrance mounds tear up the land and pose a hazard to livestock that might stumble and break
a leg. They are hard-pressed to see anything angelic about the animal. In ranching circles, “it is verboten to even mention the name ‘prairie dog’ unless you are swearing
at them,” quips Jon Sharps, a wildlife consultant who studies them. More recently, contempt for the animals has spread from countryside to cities and suburbs, as housing developments and strip malls take over land that no one but the prairie dogs wanted before. Developers now find they must somehow deal with the animals—burying them alive with bulldozers being one option. Homeowners are finding that, while it’s fun to watch the animals down the road as they chatter and fret and throw up their paws in alarm, those next door are not nearly so cute when they are chewing up carefully tended lawns.

Yet even as prairie dogs gain more enemies, they are finding new friends: animal lovers like Martin are taking up their cause, and biologists are warning that prairie dogs are actually good for the environment, even vital to a healthy prairie ecosystem. Some say that these animals are so important, and in such trouble, that just like gray wolves and manatees, they should be protected as endangered species. Of the five species of prairie dogs–black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Mexican and Utah–only the latter two are protected. The others, say wildlife advocates, are declining fast.

In the early 1800s explorers Lewis and Clark reported seeing an “infinite number” of prairie dogs. Infinite might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it probably wasn’t too far off. Even a hundred years ago, prairie dog towns occupied an estimated 100 million to 250 million acres, with parcels scattered along the short- and mixed-grass prairies from Canada to Mexico. The total number of animals probably topped 5 billion. One Texas town alone covered 25,000 square miles and held an estimated 400 million animals.

For years prairie dogs happily shared their land with bison, which tramped down vegetation and made it easier for prairie dogs to spot predators. The ranchers who settled the West never did like the prairie dogs, however. They saw these small, cinnamon-colored rodents eating the same grass as their livestock and decided they must go. Their disdain for the critters was greatly bolstered in 1902 when one C. H. Merriam, director of the U.S. Biological Survey, declared that prairie dogs decreased the productivity of rangelands by 50 to 75 percent. “It’s not at all clear how he came up with those numbers,” says Rich Reading, director of conservation biology at the Denver Zoological Foundation. “They are vastly in error.” Fabricated or not, Merriam’s numbers gave an “aura of scientific legitimacy” to the ranchers’ claims, says Reading, and the campaign to eradicate the prairie dog took off. States, counties, individuals and the federal government poisoned millions of acres of animals with strychnine. By 1960, because of this poisoning, as well as conversions of natural prairie to farmland and suburbs, prairie dogs had been wiped out in at least 98 percent of their habitat.

Eradication programs today are not as extensive as in years past, but they do continue in both urban areas and public lands. Landowners and agencies such as the National Park Service and the Forest Service (which manages national grasslands) now try to control prairie dogs using toxic zinc phosphide baits or aluminum phosphide gas. Some property owners pay $1,000 a day to have the animals sucked into a vacuum truck and hauled away. Most are killed or injured in the process. (So are other creatures who frequent the burrows.) South Dakota, which like many states considers the animal an official pest, in the early ’80s poisoned out a 450,000-acre complex–the largest remaining town in the United States. On top of the poisonings, the smaller size of the towns makes the animals more vulnerable to bubonic plague, a disease that overnight turns prairie dog colonies into ghost towns.

Only about one and a half million acres of prairie dog towns now survive in the West, and their existence is precarious, warn biologists. The cumulative impact of all these threats could, they say, lead to the disappearance of the species, and an “ecological train wreck” on the prairie.

“I’m not mad at ’em. I just can’t live with ’em,” Miles Davies explains while bouncing across his ranch in a dusty red pickup. “We had a few small towns here a few years ago. I thought they were cute. But I found out you can’t keep just a few,” he says, driving toward some of the cattle he raises on 3,000 acres just east of Denver. He points to a wheat field on his left. “That whole field was covered with prairie dogs,”
he says. “A pair of them came in 1981 and I ended up with 500 acres of them in ten years.” Davies tried to coexist with the animals, he says, but found it impossible.
“They ate all the grass. There was none left for the cattle. You can’t afford to have 500 acres that you don’t get anything out of.” Last year Davies decided he’d had enough and laid out poison bait. Nearly all the prairie dogs died, and he is planning to dispose of the last of the stragglers soon.

Davies is probably more accepting of prairie dogs than many ranchers, given that he
did try to live with them. Many of his colleagues just flat out hate them. But they are misguided, say prairie dog researchers. It’s true, they do munch on grass, and a Department of Agriculture publication says they remove as much as 90 percent of the available forage. But studies by Dan Uresk, a Forest Service research biologist, and others show a different picture: prairie dogs eat no more than 4 to 7 percent of the grass that would otherwise be eaten by cattle. In other words, if a rancher gets rid of prairie dogs, his cattle will enjoy at most a 7 percent gain in forage. Other studies have shown, Uresk says, that cattle actually prefer to feed on prairie dog towns because the rodents’ never-ending grass clipping helps the forage to stay greener and more succulent.

Ranchers also fear prairie dog invasions because of the “broken leg” phenomenon.
But that always seems to have happened to someone else. “There has never been a documented case of that happening except in John Wayne movies,” says Sharps. “Those are old wives’ tales.” Sharps tells of posing the broken leg question at a conference in South Dakota. “I had a captive audience of a couple hundred ranchers.
I said, ‘If anyone knows of a cow or a horse that has broken a leg in a prairie dog town, please raise your hand.’ Nothing. Silence. It’s a myth. Everyone says, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that,’ but when it comes right down to it, they can’t come up with anything.”

So why do ranchers continue to despise the prairie dog, in the face of all this modern research? “There is absolutely no rationale to it,” sighs Sharps. “They just do it. Their daddies did it, their granddaddies did it, they are going to do it. Their minds are made up.”

The hunting community has also made up its mind: prairie dogs make darn good targets. “I’d love to have some on my land,” says Marc Minkin, vice president of the Varmint Hunters Association. “I’d like to be able to step out my back door in the morning and take a couple shots before my morning coffee.” Prairie dogs are one of
the more popular varmints to shoot, for the 45,000 members of his South Dakota-based group, says Minkin. “It’s something you can do as a family. You’re not wearing camouflage, freezing in a tree stand.” The best places to shoot, says Minkin, are the “uneducated towns” that haven’t been shot at a lot, where the animals are still naive to the danger posed by hunters. The prairie dog has “no friends in the human or animal world,” insists Minkin. “It’s really a prairie rat.”

A favorite activity among hunters is the competitive prairie dog shoot, with prizes for whoever bags the most animals. Probably the most famous such contest was held in Nucla, Colorado, in the early ’90s, attracting entrants from all over the country, as well as protesters and much negative publicity. Nucla had to discontinue the event three years ago because so many of the dogs had succumbed to plague, there just weren’t enough left to shoot.

Despite Minkin’s assertion, many people do like prairie dogs. Some say it’s because they remind us of little humans, living in family groups, kissing, grooming, and squabbling like siblings. Any intruder, whether a dog, hunter or hiker, sets off a chain reaction of warning calls. Black-tailed prairie dogs display the comical “jump-yip” alarm call, throwing their front paws up in the air and arching their backs while calling out a high-pitched “chirp-chirp-chirp.” Others scurry to hide in a burrow, sometimes peeking over the edge. After a few minutes the animals let down their guard and go about their business, but they never roam far from a burrow entrance. These underground warrens, some a hundred feet long, provide warmth in winter and coolness in summer, nursery areas, places to mate and to sleep, listening posts, and, of course, refuge from predators.

Given that prairie dogs spend more than half their lives underground, it is perhaps
not surprising that one researcher studied them for seven years before making a remarkable discovery: prairie dogs, cute as they may be, are stone-cold killers. Mother prairie dogs regularly practice infanticide and cannibalism in the privacy of their burrows. And contrary to many other species, they are not killing nonrelatives in hopes of ensuring the survival of those closest to them genetically, but are killing and consuming very close relatives: nieces, nephews and siblings. According to the researcher, John Hoogland at the University of Maryland, the nursing mothers are probably desperate for food.

Odder still, says Hoogland, is that a few weeks after this rampage, when the babies move aboveground, mothers will nurse pups they once tried to kill. Such behavior might seem altruistic or perhaps even apologetic, but the motive may very well be still entirely selfish. Having someone else’s babies around provides a bit of a buffer zone from predators. Despite his discovery, Hoogland remains a fan of prairie dogs. If you get them young enough, he says, they make great pets, greeting human companions with a gleeful jump. Indeed, thousands of young prairie dogs are sold each year worldwide for as much as $150 each. They do, however, have a nasty little habit of trying to dig burrows in sofas.

Prof. Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University is another fan. He is convinced that they have one of the most sophisticated languages of all animals and that a seemingly generic alarm call could actually be saying, “The dangerous man wearing
a green shirt and carrying a gun is here,” or, “The harmless guy is back, no problem.” Slobodchikoff has spent countless hours in a wooden blind recording the chirps of animals in response to events such as a student or a coyote crossing the town. He
and his students then analyze the vocalizations, playing the tape into a computer that breaks down each seemingly monotone chirp into a graphic representation of its numerous harmonics. Statistical analysis of those structures reveals that different events elicit very different calls, which apparently are obvious to a prairie dog.

“Each chirp is actually a fairly complicated statement,” says Slobodchikoff. He doesn’t know yet just how much information can be packed into one chirp, but so far his studies have shown variations in response to a predator’s species, size, shape, color, speed of travel and level of threat. What’s more, the prairie dogs have good memories, he says. In one experiment, two people walked through a prairie dog town that had experienced a fair amount of hunting; one was a “hunter” and carried a simulated rifle. The prairie dogs, as expected, gave a different call for each person. Weeks later, when the hunter showed up without his rifle, says Slobodchikoff, “they still gave the call for when he had the rifle. The exact same call.”

So what if prairie dogs are cute and smart? Do we really need to worry if there are a
few less rodents in the world? Yes, say wildlife biologists. They consider prairie dogs keystone species, which actually create a particular type of habitat, and warn that we could lose not just several species, but an entire ecosystem. “The prairie dog is like the earthworm of the prairie,” explains Larry Shanks of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It creates shorter grasses, tunnels for burrowing owls, a food source for ferruginous hawks. It’s a real nucleus of an ecosystem.” The prairie dog ecosystem supports at least 170 species, including black-footed ferrets, hawks, eagles, mountain plovers, owls, coyotes, badgers, bobcats and foxes.

“Some of those are ‘obligate’ species, like the black-footed ferret,” says Jon Sharps. “Ninety-one percent of its diet is prairie dogs and 100 percent of its habitat requirements are prairie dog colonies. There are also ‘semi-obligate’ species like the swift fox; about half of their diet is prairie dogs.” The near extinction of the black-footed ferret, in fact, was caused largely by the decline in prairie dogs.

Foes of the prairie dog point to the many pockets of animals found in the West and
ask how they can possibly be in trouble when they seem to be everywhere. It’s not simply a matter of numbers, respond biologists. Today’s populations are too small and too far apart. A prairie dog ecosystem might need to be as large as 20,000 acres to be healthy, but most today are only a few hundred acres at best. Such fragmentation leaves them vulnerable to disease, natural catastrophes and genetic problems.

Wildlife experts cite the prairie dogs’ woes as a prime opportunity to put into practice “ecosystem management,” a relatively new approach to conservation. Instead of throwing millions of dollars at each species that has the misfortune to become endangered, this theory holds, why not try to preserve and manage an entire ecosystem at once, preferably before anybody gets into serious trouble? A bit of effort to save the prairie dogs now, biologists argue, could result in a big payoff–ecologically and financially–for all the species that depend on them.

The Front Range area of Colorado is prime prairie dog habitat—and prime people habitat. Consequently, the state is losing thousands of acres of open space each year to housing developments, highways and strip malls. Although Paula Martin and her volunteers are saving as many prairie dogs as they can, the animals are being pushed off one chunk of land after another.

Driving around Denver’s suburbs with Dave Weber, a state biologist, it’s easy to feel sorry for the animals. Weber pulls into a lot behind a new strip mall, expecting to find
a farmhouse and acres of prairie dogs. Instead, he discovers that town houses have taken over at least half the habitat. “Last time I was here those houses weren’t there,” he says, parking next to construction trailers. “I saw ferruginous hawks sitting on the ground right where the houses are now.” Not all of the prairie dogs have been routed just yet. Some still make a living on land east of the new homes. Weber points to two white smudges in a distant tree. “Bald eagles,” he notes. Eagles and other raptors migrate here each winter to escape colder climates, expecting to find prairie dogs. “They probably won’t be here next winter.”.

Other Front Range towns, faced with similar development pressures, have moved to protect prairie dogs. The city of Boulder, 30 miles northwest of Denver, led the way
in 1987 by setting aside land for prairie dogs, now nearly 5,000 acres. Boulder, in fact, was the first town in Colorado to officially consider prairie dogs in its management plan. Farther north in Fort Collins, the issue arose in the early ’90s, when a housing development wiped out 120 acres of animals, says Karen Manci, a city environmental planner. “We started asking, how can we stop this from happening again? The writing was on the wall that we were going to lose them all to development.”  In 1992, that city’s natural areas plan assured that the acreage would be set aside for prairie dogs. Even more important, says Manci, the attitudes of residents changed. “In seven years I’ve seen this community go from saying, ‘What the heck, they’re varmints,’ to becoming aware of the value of prairie dogs. Before 1990 we had 268 acres of prairie dog colonies. Now we have 1,700.”

Conflicts do arise, however. On the western edge of town, where the grasslands rise into the Rocky Mountain foothills, Manci tramps through a three-year-old housing development to a wide strip of designated prairie dog habitat. Between the houses and the animals is a buffer zone and a two-foot-high fence. “Look, there are two prairie dogs on the wrong side of the fence,” she says, pointing to animals lurking perilously close to the houses. Last spring, a ruckus erupted over the city’s plan to poison some prairie dogs that had migrated onto private property here and elsewhere in the city. “We got bad press as killers,” sighs Manci. “And we’re the ones who saved 1,700 acres.” The city agreed to hold off on the fumigation so Martin and her crew could relocate some of the wanderers. Even so, “not one neighbor has said to get rid of them all,” Manci notes with a smile. “They all just say, ‘Keep them on your side.'”

Not all rescues have happy endings. Prairie dogs were taken out of Hutchinson, Kansas, in three separate batches. In their new homes they were protected from humans, but not their natural enemies. Every last one in the first two batches of 76
and 44 was killed by predators. Some believe that they were placed in an area where the grass was too long for them to see anything approaching them. Others said that they were “city” prairie dogs and did not have the necessary survival skills. The 17 animals in the third batch were placed in an existing prairie dog town and are believed to have survived (none was marked). Undeterred by the losses, Martin is out every weekend, one step ahead of the bulldozers, saving one prairie dog at a time.

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