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July 27, 2010

On the Ground at the Thunder Basin Prairie Dog Relocation Project

An innovative attempt to protect prairie dogs in Wyoming

  • Lindsey Sterling Krank fills a cage with vegetables. Ruthanne Johnson/The HSUS

  • Traps were set out and filled with food before the relocation so the prairie dogs could become comfortable with them. Ruthanne Johnson/The HSUS

  • The relocated prarie dogs will be safe from "varmint" hunters on U.S. Forest Service land. Ruthanne Johnson/The HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

Driving through Wyoming's Thunder Basin National Grassland on my way to The HSUS' prairie dog relocation project—the first collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and conservation groups to save prairie dogs—I am struck by the beauty of the grassland.

Even as sunlight illuminates my car's windshield, black clouds loom in the near distance. I head toward the storm, knowing it will move before I cross its path. That’s the way of the prairie—big sky, wide open landscape, fragile and fast-changing. I pass a bald eagle perched in a cottonwood tree, scoping the terrain for his next meal. Then I stop to photograph a pronghorn buck in the distance, and a wire fence suddenly comes into focus—a reminder of the changes humans have brought to this landscape.

The team

I meet up with Lindsey Sterling Krank, head of The HSUS' Prairie Dog Coalition, and Kristy Bly of World Wildlife Fund at an old cabin. Between these two there are more than ten years of experience relocating prairie dogs. Their mission this summer is to relocate about 400 prairie dogs who will otherwise be poisoned.

The cabin where we're staying is sometimes used by hunters who pay a local rancher for the pleasure of shooting "varmints." Sylvatic plague killed most of the prairie dogs on this land, so instead of housing prairie dog hunters, the cabin is sheltering people with a kindlier agenda.

Amidst ephemera from darker activities—rusty leghold traps, an old gun rack, a taxidermied bear—we construct acclimation cages to hold and then encourage prairie dogs to stay after being released into their new homes—the restored burrows of abandoned colonies located deep in a protected area. The team clips snug-fitting holes in the bottom of the cages to fit over holes in an old burrow system the relocated prairie dogs will soon call home.

Temporary homes

We outfit the cages to keep the prairie dogs well fed and comfortable, giving them a cornucopia of vegetables, perforated drain pipe for shelter, and another pipe leading leading from the cutout into the ground to get them started digging. Within a day or two, they'll probably find the tunnels of the old burrow system, some as far down as 16 feet.

Over the next several days, we prepare three release sites, each with 20 acclimation cages that can hold five prairie dogs each. The team mowed the tall grass between sites to allow the prairie dogs line of sight, which will encourage colony expansion.

The team has already laid out traps near prairie dog holes on the two removal sites. The traps aren't set, but there's grain inside to encourage exploration of these curious contraptions. The Forest Service constructed an electric fence around the trap sites to prevent cattle from trampling the traps to eat the grain. We're all painfully aware that the prairie dogs outside the fence will be poisoned, so the relocation team has been sprinkling grain trails from the holes leading into the fenced area in the hope of luring as many prairie dogs to safety as possible.

Keeping families together

After preparing the release area, the team maps out the trap site to identify each coterie (prairie dog family). If they can keep the coteries together, the transition will be smoother. The team then trains the Forest Service on relocation protocol to prepare them to take over the project, which will continue through the end of August.

Trap days start early, even before the first birds begin their dawn chorus. Everyone is excited yet nervous—excited to save prairie dogs and nervous because many lives depend on the project’s success. As dawn's first rays shimmer on the horizon, we set the first traps amidst the sleeping colony. The rescue begins.

To be continued...

The Thunder Basin Prairie Dog Relocation Project extends through September. Visit our website for more updates.

Ruthanne Johnson is a staff writer for All Animals magazine.

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