Doggone: Prairie Dogs Face a New and Deadly Threat
Prairie dogs have been eliminated from more than 95 percent of their grassland habitat. And now they, and the vast and complicated ecosystems they sustain, face a new and deadly threat.
The “City of Russell Springs,” Kansas, a seven-hour drive west of Kansas City, is not a major tourist destination. No store. No phone. No cell service. Population: 29. You bring your own food, and you bunk at the city’s single hotel—the Logan House, built in 1887; no management on site; $50 a night; leave your check on the desk.
Stroll outside the city limits, and you can see for 10 miles on all compass points. This wet August the landscape is mostly green and, save for the odd, distant grain elevator, seemingly undefiled by humans. The only sounds impart a sense of peace—the rustle of cottonwoods, the buzz of cicadas, the occasional banter of crows. But a war is raging between locals on one side and wildlife, environmentalists, and the feds on the other.
Prairie dogs are ground squirrels that sound and act like dogs. They bark, sit erect, wag their tails, wrestle like puppies, and exchange “kisses” with jaws agape. Throughout the West about 95 percent of the black-tailed prairie dogs—the most widely distributed of the five species—have been eliminated by land use change, poison, shooting, and bubonic or “sylvatic”—meaning found in the wild—plague, probably introduced by stowaway rats from Asia circa 1899 and now spreading through the West. Accordingly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proclaimed in 1998 that the black-tailed prairie dog warranted listing as threatened. But two years later it ruled that listing was “warranted but precluded”—bureaucratese for, “Yeah, we should do it, but we’re too busy.” Rousted by court order, the service is currently conducting a “status review” to see if listing is necessary. While actual extinction seems unlikely, that’s the common goal in the West. “I think you have to try to kill them all,” said rancher and Logan County Commission chairman Carl Uhrich when I interviewed him at his house just south of Oakley. “It’s just like if you got termites in your house. Do you just kill part of them? Or do you clean them all out?”
But when you clean out prairie dogs you clean out lots of other wildlife. As prey they feed all manner of mammalian and avian carnivores and scavengers, and as burrowers they aerate soil and provide shelter for reptiles, amphibians, burrowing owls, rabbits, and rodents. At least 150 vertebrate species benefit from prairie dogs—about 30 of which depend on them to varying extents, including the endangered black-footed ferret, which can’t exist without them and whose wild population (in spring, before kits are born) is about 500. Black-footed ferrets had been presumed extinct until September 1981, when they were rediscovered in Meeteetse, Wyoming, by an investigator named Shep, who toted a dead one back to a ranch house. Shep was a dog. Because the population wasn’t doing well, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service evacuated all animals in order to breed them in captivity, and I went out to file a report for Audubon. I hadn’t expected them to be so beautiful or so small. They popped out of their artificial prairie dog burrows and fixed me with bright, alert eyes. Much of the environmental community, myself included, passionately opposed removing black-footed ferrets from the wild. And if the biologists had followed our advice (see my “The Final Ferret Fiasco,” May 1986), black-footed ferrets would be extinct.