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.
Occasionally a rancher cherishes and cultivates prairie dogs and the wildlife they support, thereby becoming a pariah. Four examples are Larry Haverfield, his wife, Bette, and their neighbors Gordon Barnhardt and his wife, Martha, who own ranchland six miles south of Russell Springs. "It's not prairie dogs alone that we like; it's the whole ecosystem that depends on them," Gordon Barnhardt told me. "All kinds of amphibians and reptiles winter down those holes. Prairie dogs do kill grass, but over the long term they dig holes, which serve as water channels. And they bring up fresh dirt, which stimulates growth of grasses and forbs. There is no other critter that does so much to benefit other species. The Fish and Wildlife Service said black-tailed prairie dogs deserve to be listed, but we're not going to do it. Now what the hell does that mean? To me it was a coded message to all the redneck ranchers to get those bastards poisoned now before we have to declare them threatened."
In gathering twilight I wandered through a dog town while two border collies raced around me and photographer Matt Slaby shot photos of the Haverfields. Save for the twinkle in their eyes and missing pitchfork, they'd have passed for "American Gothic." Later they invited me into their house to view photos of local swift foxes and of Larry holding a dead golden eagle, which may have been killed by county-applied Rozol. He'd found it last March on the Barnhardts' property (which he now leases). On the wall was a poster depicting the ranch product the Haverfields and Barnhardts are proudest of under the caption: "Wanted Alive: Black-footed ferrets."
Increasingly, ranchers find themselves on chemical treadmills. "When you kill off the prairie dogs you kill off their predators," said Larry. "So after the prairie dogs get going again there's nothing to control them except poison." I asked him if prairie dogs hurt his cattle. "No," he said. "In fact, we think they're healthier with prairie dogs. We went to rotation grazing school in 1986, and we're sold on it. It's the only way you can come close to imitating what the buffalo did."
In 2005 Haverfield elicited gasps of anger and disbelief when, at a county commission meeting to coordinate an all-out chemical offensive against prairie dogs, he rose to express his fondness for them and the wildlife they sustain. "The local paper reported '99 against one,' " he recalls. "And I was proud of that."
Shortly thereafter Barnhardt and Haverfield invited Audubon of Kansas's Ron Klataske over to check out their dog towns. Klataske, a trained wildlife biologist who had served on the black-footed ferret recovery team, was blown away. No black-footed ferrets had been seen in Kansas since December 31, 1957. But here, finally, were dog towns large enough and healthy enough to support them. With Klataske's help the Haverfields and Barnhardts wrote a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service, inviting it to assess their property for black-footed ferret reintroduction. The service deemed the site promising; as an added benefit, that part of Kansas was free of plague.
The furor over coddling prairie dogs was mild compared with the furor over the planned reintroduction of an endangered species. "We asked the Fish and Wildlife Service not to bring ferrets in here," says county commissioner Uhrich, who likes to wear a hat advertising Rozol when wildlife advocates are present. "And they brought them in anyway. First thing we knew they turned them loose. Ranchers don't like having an endangered species because they bring all the federal rules with them. We [the commission] passed a resolution and the Fish and Wildlife Service just ignored it, said federal law overruled local law. I said, 'Well, you can take your ferrets and go home then.' " The resolution, legally meaningless, wrongly calls the black-footed ferret "not indigenous" and proclaims "that no person or agency shall bring into Logan County one or more black-footed ferret or any one or more of any other species which is considered . . . an endangered species, a threatened species, or a sensitive species."
The impending invasion of feds and ferrets sent the county commission and the Farm Bureau into frontal-assault mode. Throughout Kansas--even 100 miles east of prairie dog range--the Farm Bureau played Music Man to gullible ranchers, whipping them to a froth of paranoia with tales of how scheming D.C. bureaucrats would be using the Endangered Species Act to seize control of their property. In 2005 the commission issued prairie-dog eradication orders, citing a century-old Kansas statute that authorizes county officials to enter private property "infested" with prairie dogs, "exterminate" them, then send the bill to the landowner. If Haverfield and Barnhardt could be bullied into poisoning off their prairie dogs, the feds would have no place to put their ferrets.