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December 4, 2009

Prairie Dog Coalition, The HSUS Join Forces

Group looks for common-sense solutions to conflicts

The Humane Society of the United States

by Julie Hauserman

  • Prairie dogs live in holes like this one that provide protection from weather and from natural enemies.

  • Prairie dogs, a keystone species, attract many species to their colonies.

  • The Prairie Dog Coalition is working to protect where the animals live rather than relocating them.

  • This prairie dog is doing what's called a jump yip -- a jump and a bark at the same time. It's part of a very elaborate communication system among prairie dog colonies.

With long tawny bodies, diminutive paws, and cute button eyes peeking out of their underground burrows, prairie dogs are easy to love.

A Keystone Species

Environmental scientist Lindsey Sterling-Krank discovered that eight years ago, when a nonprofit group hired her to trap and relocate prairie dogs to save them from being killed on construction sites and ranchlands. Few laws protect prairie dogs, and landowners often poison them to wipe out a colony.

Sterling-Krank has studied plenty of species – bugs, fish and birds, to name a few. Now, as executive director of the Prairie Dog Coalition -- a new program operated by The Humane Society of the United States -- Sterling-Krank is learning the intricate details of life in a busy prairie dog colony.

“Prairie dogs attract so many species to their colonies,” Sterling-Krank said. “The fact that they are a keystone species drives home the point that they are important to our native ecology.”

The Prairie Dog Coalition, an alliance of nonprofit groups, scientists, and advocates, advocates for common-sense solutions to conflicts between prairie dogs and landowners.

Protection at Home

“What’s really needed is changes in the laws so that prairie dogs can be protected where they are,” instead of being relocated, Sterling-Krank said.

Most of the prairie dog’s habitat is on national grasslands, and ranchers who hold leases to graze cattle on those lands are often concerned that cattle will step into a prairie dog hole and break a leg.

Sterling-Krank said if ranchers move cattle from one location to another more slowly, instead of driving them at high speeds, they won’t step in prairie dog holes. The holes are raised mounds that provide protection against flooding as well as a perch from which the animals can view their surroundings for security purposes. Cows naturally step around holes, rocks, and other impediments.

“Prairie dogs and bison co existed for thousands of years before we intervened,” she said.

The coalition’s current focus is the Conata Basin, adjacent to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. It is home to the largest population of prairie dogs on public land in the Great Plains.

Last year, the U.S. Forest Service released a plan that if adopted, could poison up to 16,000 acres of prairie dogs in Conata Basin. The area is a reintroduction site for the black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America.

Not only is the massive poisoning inhumane to its intended target, the prairie dogs, but the scientific data points to jeopardizing the recovery effort for the endangered black-footed ferrets. Black-footed ferrets rely 100 percent on prairie dogs for food.

“The future of the prairie dog is at stake as habitat loss and other threats put their survival in danger,” said Dave Pauli, senior director for wildlife response for The HSUS. “We are pleased to expand our efforts to protect these animals by adding Lindsey and the Prairie Dog Coalition to our team.”

Facts about Prairie Dogs

Prairie dogs are a keystone to other species, including hawks, owls, foxes, eagles, snakes, rabbits, badgers, and endangered black-footed ferrets, dependent on prairie dogs for food or their burrows for shelter. Prairie dog populations have declined nearly 95 percent due to habitat loss, government-sanctioned poisoning and shooting.

Methods used to kill prairie dogs may be especially cruel such as poisons that can take up to 72 hours to kill the animals.

Prairie dogs enrich and aerate soil by digging burrows, adding fertilizer and keeping invasive plant species at bay. They are social animals with an advanced communication system.

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