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October 20, 2011

Prairie Dog Watch: Reflections on Protecting a Native Species

An HSUS photographer documents the fascinating life of an American original.

All Animals magazine

  • Kathy Milani/The HSUS.

by Kathy Milani

I’d been watching the prairie dogs for hours as they nibbled on grasses, ran between burrows, touched noses and kissed. The evening light was perfect for photos—golden prairie, sandstone bluffs, and miles of pale blue sky. The stillness calmed my spirit as I sat in the middle of the colony, wearing clothes that blended with the landscape, my camera set low to the ground on a tripod. Not another human soul was around for miles.

When I’d first arrived, the colony’s sentinels had promptly sounded their alarm chirps. But after realizing I posed no threat, the prairie dogs let loose with jump yips—joyful cries and snappy stretches to the sky. And when they allowed me to sit among them, I felt they had accepted me. Soon I was watching them jump yip when they first emerged in the morning and at night before they settled into their burrows. One day, the entire colony joined one after another in the spectacle, like waves of fans at a baseball game.

Last summer, this colony and one other were moved deeper into Wyoming’s 583,000-acre Thunder Basin National Grassland; a nearby landowner wanted them gone, and the alternative was poisoning. This summer, I was there to photograph the flourishing colonies and a second relocation effort under way, coordinated by The HSUS in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and other NGOs. Three more colonies deemed too close to private lands were in jeopardy of being poisoned.

View a slideshow of the Thunder Basin prairie dogs.

As I sat with the prairie dogs, I thought about how they’d had to be relocated simply because surrounding landowners couldn’t share this wide expanse of prairie. Many of the ranchers want this critical species gone, even from the 18,000 acres of federally protected grassland where the U.S. Forest Service is trying to grow its population for the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret, an endangered species that depends on prairie dogs for food. A local guy stopped me one morning as I was getting my gear together. He hated prairie dogs and was upset that his tax dollars were being spent on relocating “vermin.” But tax dollars are also spent on poisoning. I asked him if he’d ever sat down in the middle of a field and just observed prairie dogs, if he’d even noticed their jump yips. He said he hadn’t.

This kind of hatred deeply troubles me. In rural areas, so many issues with wild animals derive from unfounded claims that they compete with livestock for grass. In urban areas throughout prairie dogs’ range, it’s development that shrinks their habitat.

As the sun dipped behind the horizon, I suddenly heard the prairie dogs sounding their alarm calls. I knew it wasn’t because of me; I’d been there for some time. I squinted toward the distance and saw three badgers stalking toward the colony. It was a long, tense moment as the predators closed in, hesitated—and then disappeared beyond the horizon. The prairie dogs quieted until about 20 minutes later, when their sharp chirps pierced the silence. The badgers had come back: one, two, three shadowy figures lumbering one after another where grass meets sky.

Again the badgers disappeared—perhaps deterred by my presence—and this time the colony seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. I certainly did. Then the pronghorn came, and I knew that I was part of this extraordinary place. I’d been the prairie dogs’ sentinel that night. And this became one of my favorite spots on earth.

Read more from this issue of All Animals.

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