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Home » New West Network Topics » Travel & Outdoors » Relocating Prairie Dogs a Hard, Successful Sell in Wyoming
Prairie dogs might seem numerous to the casual observer, but their numbers are plummeting. At one point, black-tailed prairie dogs inhabited 80 million to 100 million acres across 11 states and part of Canada and Mexico. Today, their habitat is estimated at about 2.1 million acres. In the 1990s, there were seven large prairie dog complexes that remained across the Great Plains. A complex is an area of 10,000 acres or more inhabited by prairie dogs (as measured by the requirement for black-footed ferrets to survive). Thunder Basin was one of them until plague hit. Today, only one complex remains in South Dakota. And while some see that as plenty of space for a dirt-slinging little varmint, the loss of a keystone species such as the prairie dog has lasting repercussions. As the prairie dogs go, so do the species that rely on them, including eagles, badgers, weasels, mountain plovers, swift foxes, ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls and rattlesnakes. They’re part of the complexity that is the grassland web. Take one piece out, even a piece as small as a prairie dog, and the rest suffer. “It was a sea of life. It was a city. For wildlife this was New York City,” says Jonathan Proctor, surveying the grassland. Proctor, who has spent many years on this issue, is the Rocky Mountain region representative for the Defenders of Wildlife. “The loss of the prairie dog was the loss of all of that. Some still remain, but nothing like it was. It was impressive by any standard.”

Relocating Prairie Dogs a Hard, Successful Sell in Wyoming

To lure the average prairie dog out of its home, one only needs a bit of horse sweet feed – a mixture of corn, oats, molasses and pellets. But to lure the smart dog, the one that dances around the trap and thumbs his nose at you, you’ve got to have the big guns: gummy worms, pork rinds and animal crackers.

Prairie dogs on the Thunder Basin National Grasslands seem to have great culinary tastes when faced with transplantation.

Hundreds of prairie dogs got new digs this summer after being relocated in one of the first large-scale prairie dog projects performed on public land by a public agency – slightly shocking in a state where prairie dog shooting is as close to a communal pastime as an eclectic state like Wyoming has.

As part of a trailblazing new plan, the Douglas Ranger District, in cooperation with a number of conservation groups, relocated about 550 problem prairie dogs that bordered private land to an abandoned colony on the Thunder Basin National Grassland. According to Cristi Painter, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, the hope is that they will establish a colony big enough to reintroduce the black-footed ferret, which eats prairie dogs as a main food source, by next fall.

Starting in July, the service, along with help and input from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society, World Wildlife Fund and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, began trapping and relocating the animals. They transferred them to a site wiped out when a plague swept through the area in 2001 and 2005. Over several weeks, the colony flourished, merging with an established colony nearby, creating 316 new acres of prairie dog habitat.

YES, THE DISAPPEARING PRAIRIE DOG

A prairie dog explores its new home after being relocated to the Thunder Basin National Grassland near Bill. More than 80 prairie dogs had been relocated within the first week of the project. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

A prairie dog explores its new home after being relocated to the Thunder Basin National Grassland near Bill. More than 80 prairie dogs had been relocated within the first week of the project. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

Prairie dogs might seem numerous to the casual observer, but their numbers are plummeting. At one point, black-tailed prairie dogs inhabited 80 million to 100 million acres across 11 states and part of Canada and Mexico. Today, their habitat is estimated at about 2.1 million acres.

In the 1990s, there were seven large prairie dog complexes that remained across the Great Plains. A complex is an area of 10,000 acres or more inhabited by prairie dogs (as measured by the requirement for black-footed ferrets to survive). Thunder Basin was one of them until plague hit. Today, only one complex remains in South Dakota.

And while some see that as plenty of space for a dirt-slinging little varmint, the loss of a keystone species such as the prairie dog has lasting repercussions.

As the prairie dogs go, so do the species that rely on them, including eagles, badgers, weasels, mountain plovers, swift foxes, ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls and rattlesnakes. They’re part of the complexity that is the grassland web. Take one piece out, even a piece as small as a prairie dog, and the rest suffer.

“It was a sea of life. It was a city. For wildlife this was New York City,” says Jonathan Proctor, surveying the grassland. Proctor, who has spent many years on this issue, is the Rocky Mountain region representative for the Defenders of Wildlife. “The loss of the prairie dog was the loss of all of that. Some still remain, but nothing like it was. It was impressive by any standard.”

A SHIFT IN PRIORITY

Prairie dogs have long been the object of much cussing and downright hatred in this part of the world. Tourists may fawn over their cute little faces in other places–there’s a very popular exhibit of them at the National Zoo in D.C., for example–but ask any rancher what he thinks about them and he’s bound to reach for his gun.

Cristi Painter, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, removes a reluctant prairie dog destined for relocation. The program has established 316 acres of new habitat for the animal. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

Cristi Painter, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, removes a reluctant prairie dog destined for relocation. The program has established 316 acres of new habitat for the animal. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

So it is surprising that landowners in the area are buying into a relatively gentle relocation program – or, at the least, giving it a chance.

“We believe this is precedent-setting for the future,” says Lindsey Sterling-Krank of the Prairie Dog Coalition.

In 2001, the northern national grasslands revised their management plans, giving the prairie dog an elevated status it hadn’t had. For years, the main management on the dogs was a poison called zinc phosphide, which would be put out in the form of grain. After its ingested, the zinc phosphide would interact with stomach acids and phosphine gas would be released and absorbed into the bloodstream, poisoning the prairie dog. Aside from being a political tightrope walk, the process was also costly, labor intensive and required multiple applications, year after year.

The new plan stressed protecting the animals as a keystone species. When that change went through, several groups started pushing to weaken the plan, wanting to return to the old regime.

When groups started to make similar noises in the Douglas Ranger District, both Cristi Painter and Misty Hays, acting district ranger, decided it was time to come up with a plan.

“I don’t know that it was necessarily a shift in our way of thinking,” Painter says. “It was just a shift in being able to implement what we knew.”

After years of working through the layers of bureaucracy, they hatched a strategy that would help return prairie dogs to one of the last remaining places capable of supporting them.

It should be noted this was not an easy sell.

As the prairie dogs go, so do the species that rely on them, including eagles, badgers, weasels, mountain plovers, swift foxes, ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls and rattlesnakes. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

As the prairie dogs go, so do the species that rely on them, including eagles, badgers, weasels, mountain plovers, swift foxes, ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls and rattlesnakes. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

Groups resisted, locals rebelled – like all controversial issues, this was a good, old-fashioned pissing match at times. Groups like Thunder Basin Grassland Prairie Ecosystem Association, a nonprofit of eastern Wyoming landowners formed to address land management concerns, fought to get poison back into the plan as another option. Painter took calls from people who weren’t exactly angry, she says, but couldn’t understand why so much time and effort would be put into saving something like a prairie dog.

And while selling the idea that prairie dogs were an important part of the ecosystem was not exactly a hit, it eventually worked – at least enough to get the project done.

“Instead of suing, let’s put all of our tools together and get something that will be a win-win for all of us,” said Betty Pellatz, chairman for the Thunder Basin Grassland Prairie Ecosystem Association earlier this summer. Pellatz had come to help release the prairie dogs and, by all accounts, seemed to have a knack for it.

The long-term comparison of cost for projects like this is up for debate. Using a poison regimen, dollars must be shelled out every year, labor must be hired to do the job and the end result tends to leave a less-than-savory taste in the mouth of the general public.

This particular project, while more expensive up front (in this instance, the U.S. Forest Service spent about $25,000 and the nonprofits ponied up $15,000), it may actually prove to be more cos- effective in the years to come. Permanent relocation is a one-time deal with monitoring that tapers off after the initial transplant. The plan’s goal is that no dogs die and people get to walk away with a general warm, fuzzy feeling.

But it also takes it one step further. To rebuild grasslands, the prairie dog has to be part of that foundation and with its re-establishment, other species like the black-footed ferret stand a chance.

“This is the keystone that remains,” Proctor says. “We can’t lose these, too.”

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2 comments

  1. Shauna Stephenson,
    Thanks for the informative and interesting article. Glad to see some activity on this important issue.

    Is Theodore Roosevelt National Monument in ND one of the 7 areas that meets the criteria for prairie dog complexes? Does it have any black footed ferrets?

  2. Kudos on this excellent article. And I support and applaud those involved in this positive prairie dog relocation project. Prairie dogs are indeed a “keystone species” that provide benefits for many other species, whether through their extensive burrow systems or their abundance as prey for predators. As such, I hope this successful relocation project serves as a precedent for other conflict situations. It should always be preferable to relocate prairie dogs that private landowners do not want, rather than poisoning them.

    By the way, one prairie dog species in the United States is listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act – the Utah prairie dogs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just released a draft revised recovery plan for the Utah prairie dog, which is available for public review and comment until mid-November.

    Sadly, many Americans still view prairie dogs in Utah and elsewhere as a bothersome nuisance or vermin. We need to increase public awareness of the essential ecological role of prairie dogs, and find more positive solutions to reduce conflicts and eliminate the need for future poisoning projects.