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November 10, 2010

Where the Prairie Dogs Roam: Part 1

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

by Ruthanne Johnson

Hundreds of black-tailed prairie dogs sleep comfortably in their burrows this July morning—unaware that government scientists, conservationists, and HSUS employees are readying to steal through the dark and set live traps outside their holes.

The team leaves nothing to chance. Some prairie dogs will inevitably dig under the traps to snatch the grain sprinkled inside, so HSUS environmental scientist Lindsey Sterling Krank instructs their rescuers to foil the thievery by packing down the soil beneath and along the sides.

Her colleague, World Wildlife Fund-U.S. wildlife biologist Kristy Bly, chimes in, reminding everyone of the need to work quickly and quietly. The pair knows that any untrapped animals on this site in eastern Wyoming’s Thunder Basin National Grassland are otherwise destined for cruel deaths by poisoning; they’re considered too close to a large tract of private property whose owner wants them gone. They also know that it’s not just the survival of the prairie dogs hanging in the balance, but the future of blackfooted ferrets, endangered animals who depend almost entirely on prairie dogs for food.

Thankfully for both species, the project is being led by a trio of scientists who live and breathe all things prairie dog. As experts in the field of prairie dog relocation, Bly and Sterling Krank have about 17 years of experience between them. Bly has established 50 new colonies from the ground up on rural, private lands, and Sterling Krank has moved dozens of colonies from urban environments. They’re joined by Defenders of Wildlife environmental scientist Jonathan Proctor, a 16-year veteran of the fight to save prairie dogs.

It’s their job to train U.S. Forest Service employees in humanely trapping the animals and setting up new homes so the work can continue long after they’re gone. In the pre-dawn hour, everyone radiates nervous energy. They have less than one hour to set the traps so these shy early risers can venture outside their burrows to nibble the grain treats without fear of humans lurking nearby.

The workers fan out quietly to set the traps, a sense of urgency in their steps. Pencil-thin rays of light from their headlamps become moving specks on the ground. If all goes as planned, more than 500 prairie dogs will settle into new homes deeper in the heart of federally protected land—out of the poison’s reach.

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