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.
But Haverfield and Barnhardt aren't easily bullied. In 2006 the commission began treating the Barnhardt property with Rozol. It's illegal to apply Rozol near cattle, so Haverfield moved his cattle into the treatment area, thereby forcing the exterminator to withdraw. But the exterminator had illegally spread Rozol on the ground rather than just in the holes and therefore got hit with a $2,800 fine from the state Department of Agriculture, a fine he has yet to pay. When Haverfield defied a county order to remove his cattle the county returned on a Friday after working hours, a standard method of preventing a court injunction, and applied Phostoxin--a poison gas permissible around cattle but which kills prairie dogs in their burrows along with everything else that uses them, such as snakes, box turtles, badgers, swift foxes, and burrowing owls. On September 10, 2007, Haverfield and Barnhardt stopped the gas attack and all future county poisoning inside the barrier with a court injunction. The county exterminator vacated the property, leaving it littered with plastic bags of sand he'd placed over the burrows to contain the gas. Then, on November 19--the day Haverfield drove to Topeka to attend a trial that ultimately extended the injunction against the county--the county returned and applied Rozol.
It's not as if Haverfield and Barnhardt aren't making an effective effort to be good neighbors by containing their prairie dogs. In 2006 and 2007, for example, Haverfield spent $20,000 poisoning the perimeters of his property, Barnhardt's property, and other land he leases. He invited in varminters at no charge (and started wearing blaze-orange shirts to avoid being shot). He built 25 miles of cow-proof electric fence 30 yards in from his permanent fence to create a "vegetative barrier," which prairie dogs are loath to cross because it blocks their view of predators. In addition, Audubon of Kansas is constructing 10 miles of chickenwire barrier with a low electric fence that repels prairie dogs. Although Haverfield and Barnhardt successfully sued the state and county to prevent them from poisoning their land with Phostoxin, the judge ruled that the county could poison the whole barrier. None of this has been enough for most of the neighbors, who spew invective to the press but whose lawsuit against Haverfield and Barnhardt for allowing prairie dog proliferation has been thrown out of court.
In their crusade to nix ferret reintroduction, the county and the Farm Bureau hissed into the ears of the conservative Kansas congressional delegation, which hissed into the ears of the conservative Bush administration. Then, when the Fish and Wildlife Service hatched its draft environmental impact statement, the document vanished into a black hole for more than a year. Finally, in November 2007, it appeared in The Federal Register; a month later 14 ferrets (the first of about 50) were released on the Haverfield-Barnhardt complex. Twenty-four more have been released on nearby property owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
The following July, when green forage was plentiful and poison bait therefore ineffective, the county poisoned the vegetative barrier with zinc phosphide, despite warnings from the Fish and Wildlife Service that it wouldn't work and despite the fact that the agency had scheduled the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to poison the barrier with zinc phosphide in August, when it would work. "Clearly, the county wanted to punish the Haverfields and Barnhardts by sticking them with a bill," says Klataske. Then, in the winter of 2008, the county stuck them with another bill by poisoning the barrier yet again, this time with Rozol.
In January 2009, when the county, assuming the injunction no longer applied, announced that it would poison the Barnhardt property inside the barrier, the Fish and Wildlife Service threw in the towel and prepared to evacuate its ferrets. But the attorney representing the Haverfields and Barnhardts--Randy Rathbun of Wichita--saved the ferret project by getting the judge to inform the county that it was still under court order.
So there I was on the Haverfield-Barnhardt grasslands with Ron Klataske and 35 other volunteers to help the Fish and Wildlife Service see how the first black-footed ferrets to abide in Kansas for half a century were doing. We cruised assigned sections in trucks, sweeping dog towns with roof-mounted searchlights, looking for green eyes. Jack rabbits and cottontails paused, preened, and sped away through purple three-awn grass. Burrowing owls stared at us and buzzed off like moths, still visible in the brilliant starlight after they'd cut through the searchlight beam. The first night the survey team captured only one ferret (on the TNC property), a sick juvenile. So feeble was it that TNC's Rob Manes captured it with his jacket. A team then injected it with canine distemper vaccine and penicillin, and released it. "Scary, dismal," declared Klataske, assessing the count. "I think some of the ferrets have been killed by Rozol. The Fish and Wildlife Service [to appease the neighbors] has had APHIS poison the surrounding 4,500 acres, almost exclusively with Rozol."
But survey results improved. In the next four nights the group counted 26 more ferrets, seven of which it trapped, inoculated, and released.