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November 10, 2010

Where the Prairie Dogs Roam: Part 4

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

Relocating prairie dogs is no easy task, even for the experts. It involves more than just showing up with a bunch of traps on moving day—and not just because of the copious government paperwork required to bless the first relocation to date on national grasslands. The animals live in an elaborate system of tunnels that can run 16 feet deep, and they rarely venture far from home. If trouble comes while outside the burrow, they duck inside to the safety of a listening chamber near the entrance, where they stay until the coast is clear. They also rely on warning chirps of sentinels who keep watch atop nearby mounds.

To desensitize the wary animals to the traps, Bly and Sterling Krank arrived in Wyoming about a week before the first moving day and filled the devices with grain, setting them out locked in the open position. Forest Service employees erected an electric fence around the two removal sites to prevent cattle from snacking on the grain.

The pair also traveled to the release sites to map out vacant colonies that were relatively close to an active one, as relocated dogs are more likely to stay in their new homes if there are friendly neighbors chirping nearby. At three of the sites, they dug out old burrow entrances, used an auger to enlarge accessible parts of the tunnels, and created roomy nest chambers below.

They also mowed the grass around each hole so the prairie dogs could see surrounding burrows, and they placed acclimation cages atop the burrows to prevent the animals from bolting for the open prairie, where they would make easy marks for predators. Because the prairie dogs could attempt to leave the release site to find missing family members, the pair showed Forest Service employees the complicated system of lettering and color coding used to keep family groups intact during the move.

On the eve of the first day of relocation, having worked sweaty 10- to 14-hour days preparing the trap and release sites, Bly, Sterling Krank, and Proctor returned to the old hunter’s cabin where they were staying. Owned by the same ranchers who want the prairie dogs gone, the cabin once regularly hosted recreational shooters who killed the animals for fun, until plague killed most of them on the property. Amidst hunting ephemera—rusty leghold traps hanging from the wall, an old gun rack, and a taxidermied bear standing lifeless in a corner—the team discussed the day’s events and what still needed to be done before crawling into bed.

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