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Moving Day for Prairie Dogs

by Ruthanne Johnson

As the morning sun begins to illuminate a cloudless prairie sky, our small team has just finished baiting and setting live traps outside about 150 prairie dog burrows in eastern Wyoming's Thunder Basin National Grassland. Our goal is to relocate about 400 prairie dogs destined for poisoning. Their new home located deeper in the federally protected grassland should offer safety from human persecution.

It's nearly 6:00 a.m. and we must leave the site before the prairie dogs wake. There is a sense of urgency in our step as we head toward the truck; we know any remaining prairie dogs will be killed.

The team is also painfully aware that prairie dog populations are dwindling across the Great Plains, and that without them many other species are in peril.

Months of meetings, paperwork, and Forest Service permit requests have led up to this point. Then the team of prairie dog experts assembled and gathered equipment and supplies. Next, setting up the trap and release sites took endless hours in the hot prairie sun. 

We gather two truckloads of prairie dogs and drive them to the release site, where we begin the lengthy task of transferring them to acclimation cages.

We drive to the release site for last-minute preparations: adding carrots, peas, and cornto the acclimation cages the team had earlier set atop the old burrows carved out by the previous colony, and fastening tarps over them for shade. The team had enhanced the entrance holes with augur and shovel to make it easier for the relocated prairie dogs to find the abandoned tunnel system below.

At 10:30 a.m., we head back to the trap site for our first load of prairie dogs. We need to start moving them before the landscape heats up, The HSUS' Sterling Krank says. The U.S. Forest Service team is there waiting to help—Deputy District Ranger Misty Hays, wildlife biologist Cristi Painter, two wildlife technicians and even one of the wildlife technician's mothers.

Sterling Krank warns the team of prairie dog angst when trapped. "They will start screaming, and once one of them starts screaming they will all start," she says. As we walk into the colony, we cover the traps with towels to help calm the animals. "Be respectful and quiet while walking the site," she calls quietly from behind.  

One by one, the prairie dogs are loaded into the transport truck. Although a few jump when approached, the towel does the trick. Over the next hour, we gather two truckloads of prairie dogs and drive them to the release site, where we begin the lengthy task of transferring them to acclimation cages.

Because the team had kept records of prairie dog families, they are kept together as we release them into their new homes, five per cage—one adult male and female and three pups. Hays and Painter release the first prairie dog in a symbolic gesture of this great team effort between federal agencies and conservation organizations, and the day goes well.

Soon, the team sees prairie dogs munching on veggies and digging, bringing hope the animals will soon begin settling in.

The next morning, we see several prairie dogs who have already dug out of their acclimation cages, poking their heads up from burrows and investigating their new surroundings. One bold little pup runs across the grass between holes, perhaps looking for playmates.

"Hello PO-TA-TOES," Sterling Krank calls out in excitement to the spud-brown ground dwellers. 

More than 65 prairie dogs are trapped the first day of this six-week-long summer project, and 34 the next—one fourth of the speculated number in the conflict zone. It's a good sign they will all be saved.

The Forest Service will take over the relocation project on August 20. Everyone looks forward to visiting the relocated colonies again in September to observe the prairie dogs established in their new environment, a place where they are appreciated for who they are and the rich habitat they create for myriad prairie critters.

Ruthanne Johnson is a staff writer for All Animals magazine.

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