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Ranchers' emotions run high over prairie dogs

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Liberty Belle

Well-known member
Feb 10, 2005
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northwestern South Dakota
This story appeared in newspapers in Aberdeen, South Dakota and Seattle, Washington today.

Ranchers' emotions run high over prairie dogs


Associated Press

INTERIOR, S.D. - Jerry Heinrichs says the past five years of drought didn't leave enough grass for both cattle and prairie dogs on his ranch just south of Badlands National Park. The prairie dogs won.
Heinrichs sold his 150 cows last year, and now he doesn't know if he will stay on the ranch he's owned for 25 years.
He blames state and federal officials for failing to control the prairie dogs that invaded his land from the neighboring federal grasslands during the time a federal agency was determining whether the critters should be declared an endangered species.
"The worst enemy we've got right now is our own government," Heinrichs said. "Doing nothing, it's created havoc down here."
Some parts of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and the adjoining private land are stripped of vegetation. Little remains but stones, bare dirt, prairie dog mounds and the rodents that live under them.
Jonathan Proctor of Denver, a spokesman for the Predator Conservation Alliance, is equally upset with state and federal officials, but for other reasons.
He thinks they aren't doing enough to protect black-tailed prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, an endangered species that has been reintroduced in the area because prairie dogs are its main food.
The bare ground has been caused by overgrazing during the drought, Proctor argued. The number of cattle on the land should be reduced so more can be done to protect prairie dogs, ferrets, swift foxes and burrowing owls, he said.
"All we're trying to do is find a few places on public land, and on private lands where landowners are interested, to maintain healthy prairie dog populations," Proctor said.
"It doesn't seem too radical to me, but I guess to some people, the only good prairie dog is a dead prairie dog," he said.
State Agriculture Secretary Larry Gabriel, who owns a western South Dakota ranch, said prairie dogs cannot be left unchecked.
"We don't let rodents invade our homes. To many of us ranchers, that's what the prairie dogs are, rodents. We don't want to kill them all, but we want to keep to where we can best tolerate them."
Middle ground
Caught in the middle are state officials who have written a management plan that seeks to protect landowners' rights while maintaining enough prairie dogs to avoid having the animal listed as an endangered species.
The South Dakota Legislature is being asked to approve the plan, which was put together by Gabriel and state Game, Fish and Parks Secretary John Cooper.
They figure it's a good compromise because it has drawn fire from both camps.
"The emotions on this thing are so high from the environmentalists on one side and the ranchers on the other side that whoever gets in the middle is going to get hit with two bats," Cooper said.
Both sides also have blasted the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.
Don Bright, the area Forest Service supervisor in Chadron, Neb., said his agency was frustrated when the prairie dog population exploded during the years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was studying whether to protect the ground squirrels. The Fish and Wildlife Service prohibited control measures during that time.
"We couldn't act. Our hands were tied," Bright said.
The population grew so fast that prairie dogs ate all the grass, devoured prickly pear cactus and dug down to get plant roots, Bright said. Evidence suggests the prairie dogs even began to eat their young, he said.
"We manage lands that grow grass. The grass is being eaten by cows. The grass is being eaten by prairie dogs. The grass is being eaten by drought," Bright said.
"A drought, it trumps all," Bright said, noting that parts of the area have had just 2 inches of rain over the past two growing seasons.
Dwindling population
Before white settlers arrived in the West, the black-tailed prairie dog occupied an estimated 100 million acres or more in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. But the population dropped because of loss of habitat and the spread of plague, and all prairie dogs were wiped out in Arizona.
Conservation groups filed petitions in 1998 seeking to have the black-tailed prairie dog listed as threatened. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an initial finding that prairie dogs might be in trouble.
But in 2004 the agency decided that new population estimates mean the prairie dog is not likely to become endangered anytime soon.
In the meantime, however, federal agencies had been unable to control the prairie dog population on the 600,000-acre Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, and many ranchers complained their land had been invaded by prairie dogs migrating from federal land.
Last fall, the state started poisoning prairie dogs on private land in parts of southwestern South Dakota, and an agreement between federal officials and environmental groups eventually allowed poisoning on some public land in a half-mile buffer zone next to private land.
The Forest Service plans to finish an environmental study to guide future management of prairie dogs by this summer. The state's plan is intended to mesh with the federal strategy.
The federal agency has to manage the grasslands for multiple uses, which includes livestock grazing and the support of prairie dogs, ferrets and other wild animals, Bright said.
"Now, we're trying to figure out how to keep the prairie dogs on the federal lands we manage without impacting our neighbors," Bright said. "It's a matter of how many and when and where we're going to keep them on federal land."
The Fish and Wildlife Service now estimates that prairie dogs occupy more than 1.8 million acres, about three times greater than its earlier estimate in 2000.
Fish and Wildlife officials said they had to follow the timelines and procedures required in the Endangered Species Act, but the process led to an accurate assessment and correct decision.
"It would take something really big to cause the black-tailed prairie dog to be at risk of extinction. We thought we had that big thing with plague, but as more and more information came in, it appears that prairie dogs can juggle even that," said Pete Gober of the Fish and Wildlife office in Pierre.
South Dakota has an estimated 411,000 acres of prairie dogs, a big share of the remaining Great Plains population. About 195,000 acres is outside Indian reservations, areas where the state has no legal authority.
Cooper said South Dakota has had an average of about 155,000 acres of prairie dogs over the past century. When populations grow above that level, ranchers become less tolerant of the ground squirrels, he said.
Maintaining balance
The state's management plan sets a goal of 166,000 acres, a little above the long-term average, outside Indian reservations. A combination of poisoning, incentive payments to ranchers and other techniques would be used to keep the population at about that level. Poisoning would generally increase as the population grows and decline or stop as the population drops.
Cooper, the Game, Fish and Parks secretary, said prairie dogs must be managed at a level that is both tolerable to ranchers and prevents their listing as an endangered species.
Environmentalists seem to have little idea of what happens during a drought, and they base their views on what the area was like before white settlers arrived, Cooper said.
"You've got to talk in terms of management given today's conditions, which includes people living on the land, people raising cattle, all of the other changing conditions that have occurred. You can't ignore that."
Environmental groups will not support poisoning but understand it will be part of the eventual management plan, Proctor said. He said other methods, including a reduction of grazing, should be used to control prairie dogs, which prefer bare areas with little grass.
The state's management plan is a threat to prairie dogs because little would be done to protect the critters until the population declines substantially, Proctor said. Poisoning in buffer zones next to landowners who hate prairie dogs would leave few areas where the animals would be safe, he said.
Only about 0.5 percent of western South Dakota has prairie dogs, Proctor said. Prairie dogs in the Conata Basin in particular must be protected because it's the most successful area for reintroduction of the black-footed ferrets, he said.
"It's just getting crazier and crazier, this absolute hatred of prairie dogs. Sometimes it's mind-boggling why they are so hated," Proctor said.
Charles Kruse, a rancher in the Conata Basin, said the critters are hated because they have destroyed grazing on private land and the federal grasslands that ranchers lease for their cattle.
The federal land in the area is supposed to be managed to protect it and provide economic benefits, but prairie dogs have stripped the grass from much of it, Kruse said.
"That's not conservation. That's ruination," Kruse said. "I'm all for saving endangered species. But you can't do it at the ruination of everything else. They've lost all common sense with the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret."
Kruse said he's already sold a third of his cows and might have to sell more this year.
"It's the most beautiful place to live in the world. I plan on staying because it's the greatest place to live and the greatest place to raise a family," he said. "But I just wish I didn't have the federal government as a neighbor."
Just down the road, Heinrichs jokes about trying to stay busy since he sold his cows. His land looks better now because the prairie dogs were poisoned just before it finally rained last fall.
In a pasture that holds no cattle and no prairie dogs, he enjoys the absence of the animal's bark.
"But they'll be back," he said.

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