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November 10, 2010

Where the Prairie Dogs Roam: Part 3

Deep in the heart of national grassland, The HSUS helps resettle members of an embattled species

All Animals magazine, November/December 2010

  • View a PDF of this story here. The HSUS

  • Prairie dogs communicate through touch, smell, and a complex system of vocalizations. Roberta Olenick/PhotoLibrary

  • Among the prairie dog's cohorts are burrowing owls and and other rare North American creatures, such as black-footed ferrets and swift foxes. Dependent on prairie dogs for food and shelter, these species are in decline in large part due to the persecution of their hosts. Dave Showalter

  • The U.S. Forest Service's Misty Hays helps Kristy Bly (World Wildlife Fund-U.S.), Jonathan Proctor (Defenders of Wildlife), and Lindsey Sterling Krank (The HSUS) transfer prairie dogs into their acclimation cages. Dave Showalter

  • Thanks to an unprecendented collaboration between the Forest Service, The HSUS, and other private organizations, more than 500 prairie dogs on Thunder Basin National Grassland are safe from horrific deaths by slow bleeding. Dave Showalter

The loss of prairie dogs isn’t just a blow to wildlife lovers like Proctor; it’s a matter of life and death for black-footed ferrets, mostly solitary animals who need vast areas of their main prey’s habitat to survive. With the collapse of prairie dog populations, their numbers had plummeted so low by the late 1970s that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presumed them extinct. Then in 1981, a small population of 129 ferrets was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyo. But four years later, canine distemper—and probably plague—killed all but 18. To save the species, the government trapped the remaining ferrets for a captive breeding program aimed at raising more of them for release into the wild. The fragile population has slowly increased; as of fall 2008, scientists estimated the total wild population at 800 to 1,000 individuals.

Despite the tentative outlook for these animals, some private landowners in the Great Plains want to keep eliminating prairie dogs. Ranchers complain about health risks from plague and competition with their cattle for forage. They often poison or shoot prairie dogs on their properties; some consider the animals a commodity and charge “varmint” hunters a fee for shooting contests on their land.

It was amid this politically charged environment of endangered species and economic pressures that Forest Service employees, led by deputy district ranger Misty Hays, decided a plan was needed to sort through the competing interests. Mary Peterson, who later blessed the new strategy as Thunder Basin’s forest supervisor, says the goal was to manage the area’s wildlife in a more holistic manner.

“The grassland ecosystem of the Great Plains has been one of the most changed ecosystems probably of anywhere in the world,” says Peterson, now retired. “Native habitats were being converted to nonnative species, in farms generally. A lot of the rivers had been dammed to prevent flooding or for power generation. … As we planted more trees on the Great Plains, we also created a way for Eastern andWestern species to move across the barriers of the Great Plains.” Chemicals, pesticides, and mining pose further threats.

“With all of this,” she adds, “you could see how there would be species on the edge.”

Under Hays’ direction, the Forest Service began applying dust around the colonies to kill plague-carrying fleas. Since prairie dogs prefer low grasses to better detect predators, the agency began setting controlled fires to encourage them to move into new territories, at the same time letting grass grow tall around potential conflict zones. The Forest Service also banned prairie dog shooting in the area designated for ferret release. Poisoning, officials decided, was to be undertaken only under limited circumstances, such as a threat to public health or safety.

The first test of the new management plan came after a local resident approached the Forest Service last year about removing two colonies on Thunder Basin land near his property. Officials wanted to pursue nonlethal strategies. Relocation topped their list, but they had no experience moving prairie dogs.

At a ferret recovery meeting in Colorado in early 2010, The HSUS’s Sterling Krank asked if the agency had considered such an option, says Forest Service wildlife biologist Cristi Painter, who helped develop the new management plan. “We said, ‘We’ve thought about it, but we don’t have enough money,’ ” recalls Painter. “ ‘We don’t have enough equipment.We don’t have enough help. And we don’t know how to do it.’ ”

As director of the Prairie Dog Coalition, which became a program of The HSUS in late 2009, Sterling Krank quickly rallied troops from The HSUS and other conservation groups—Defenders of Wildlife,World Wildlife Fund-U.S., and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “We all started talking to each other and the whole thing started to swirl,” Painter says. The HSUS became a major player in the endeavor, providing equipment and supplies, funding, and onsite training for the Forest Service.

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