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November 10, 2010

Where the Prairie Dogs Roam: Part 5

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

It’s moving day, and the traps are set. As the sun’s first rays peek above the horizon, the team members stealthily pile into their trucks and drive the short distance to the prairie dogs’ new home—a large tract of grassland rich with western wheatgrass, buffalo grass, switchgrass, and prickly pear. Although prairie dogs are hardy creatures who survive on the harsh prairie by deriving sustenance and moisture from native vegetation, they are vulnerable, even fragile, when pulled from their environment. To keep them comfortable during the move, the team adds fresh carrots and frozen peas and corn into each acclimation cage and secures tarps on top for shade.

Back at the trap site, the workers begin collecting the prairie dog-laden cages. Respectful of the animals’ angst, they remain quiet while gently loading the prairie dogs into the transport truck. A few prairie dogs call out and slam into the sides of the cages, but they quickly calm when towels are placed overhead. One by one, the occupied traps are collected, and the team slowly drives their precious cargo the short distance to the release site.

The release runs smoothly, even as the temperature climbs. Almost immediately, the team notices loose piles of soil in some of the holes—evidence of something called backfilling. “They often work as a team to clear the burrow of dirt. They are earth movers,” Sterling Krank explains. “When the first prairie dog in the hole digs, he pushes the dirt behind him. The second dog pushes the dirt behind until the dirt is pushed outside of the hole.” It’s a good sign that the prairie dogs will soon find the previous burrow system and begin settling into their new digs.

During the following days of trapping and releasing, the team is pleased to see more and more prairie dogs standing atop freshly dug holes, busily checking out their new surroundings. Sterling Krank sees their little heads stretching up as they chirp and “jump yip”—a call often used to spread the news that a predator has left the area. “Hello, potatoes!” she calls out just as two prairie dogs pop up from one of the holes.

Proctor is hopeful as he gazes over the landscape. “In places where they have done prairie dog reintroductions, burrowing owls have been there within weeks,” he says. “All sorts of wildlife use prairie dog colonies as habitat—grasshopper mice, tiger salamanders, horned larks. Even sage grouse will use colonies as their mating grounds.”

As the first stage of the project winds down, the team drives to a high point above the prairie. Returning froma previous trip to the overlook, they’d whooped and hollered upon spotting a large active colony nearby. Now, as they examine a weathered sandstone pedestal, they find even more reasons to celebrate: evidence of raptors who’d fed on the area’s previous population of prairie dogs. Sterling Krank gathers the items—a decaying jawbone, an owl pellet, some nesting material—into a plastic bag, planning to use them as props for classes she helps teach about prairie dogs. “Finding special items like this reminds me how strong and beautiful nature really is,” she says.“How despite all the hardships that fall on animals, there is hope.”

It was a moment that crystallized why the team had endured blistered hands, sore muscles, and empty stomachs to build the prairie dogs their Shangri-la. In the weeks to come, the Forest Service employees would use the techniques they’d learned to continue the trapping, even expanding the release area to a seventh site. The saving of the prairie’s animals—the healing of a broken landscape—had begun.

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