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July 21, 2011

The Humane Way to Manage Prairie Dogs

The HSUS trains wildlife biologists and others

 

by Julie Hauserman

The spot that a colony of Arizona prairie dogs picked for their home was worse than bad; it was positively perilous. They were living beneath a rifle range at the Camp Navajo National Guard Training Site outside Flagstaff.

For their own safety, the prairie dogs had to go. Instead of poisoning the animals—a cruel and too-frequent solution—wildlife biologist Janet Lynn at Camp Navajo asked The HSUS for help.

Experts from The HSUS have begun training volunteers and professional wildlife biologists on the latest techniques to relocate prairie dogs humanely. (The slideshow above shows some of these techniques used in Thunder Basin National Grassland.)  The work is critical because the ranks of prairie dogs have plummeted by 95 percent after decades of persecution, habitat loss, and capture for the pet trade. Endangered black-footed ferrets, owls, hawks, foxes, and about 200 other species depend on prairie dogs and their habitat. Prairie dogs now occupy just two to eight percent of their historic range, and without serious conservation efforts, they may soon disappear.

Clearly, it's time for a new approach to managing these ecologically critical creatures.

Getting state and federal agencies on board

The HSUS went to Camp Navajo in late June and offered specialized training to local wildlife biologists from state and federal agencies. The HSUS was there to start the prairie dog relocation, but the goal is to make sure local biologists and volunteers can handle future humane relocations on their own. Biologists from the Arizona National Guard, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came to the training.

"It is so great to see agencies learning how to implement non-lethal management of prairie dogs," said HSUS environmental scientist and prairie dog expert Lindsey Sterling Krank. "Camp Navajo opened the training to other area biologists who wanted to learn as well."

Sterling Krank, HSUS Senior Director of Wildlife Response Dave Pauli, HSUS Arizona State Director Kari Nienstedt, Arizona biologist Emily Nelson, and Pam Wanek of Prairie Preserves conducted the hands-on demonstrations at the rifle range.

Soap, water, and quick reflexes

The work can be complicated and makes for long days. A mixture of soap and water is sprayed into the prairie dog burrows, and the relocators wait at the entrance to hand-catch the prairie dogs as they pop out. Relocators try to find and make ready an abandoned network of pre-existing prairie dog burrows in a remote area where the prairie dogs will acclimate.

"This is one more tool in the toolbox that we have to save prairie dogs," said Sterling Krank, who has been helping prairie dogs for 10 years.

After the training in Flagstaff, Sterling Krank went to help at a massive, ongoing U.S. Forest Service prairie dog relocation project at Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeast Wyoming.

"It is gratifying that we are able to offer hope for these prairie dogs," Sterling Krank said. "We have a responsibility to do everything we can to help the prairie dogs recover so that future generations can enjoy healthy wildlife populations, too."

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