February 15, 2005
Prairie Dogs Bane to Ranchers’ Existence
INTERIOR, S.D. (AP) -- Jerry Heinrichs says that because of the long-running drought across the West, his cattle had to compete with prairie dogs for the grass. And the prairie dogs won.
Across his ranch and other swaths of both private and government-owned grassland in southwestern South Dakota, about 50 miles east of Mount Rushmore, little remains but bare dirt, stones, prairie dog mounds and the burrowing rodents that live under them.Heinrichs mostly blames the federal government, which for more than four years stopped poisoning prairie dogs while it decided whether the critters regarded by ranchers as a nuisance deserved to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"The worst enemy we've got right now is our own government," Heinrichs said. "Doing nothing, it's created havoc down here."
The dispute has illustrated the wide canyon between ranchers and environmentalists and the difficulty the government has in trying to satisfy both sides while carrying out the Endangered Species Act.
Conservationists petitioned the government in 1998 to protect the black-tailed prairie dog, arguing that the rodent is slipping toward extinction because of plague and the disappearance of open spaces across the West.
In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an initial finding that prairie dogs may be in trouble. Ultimately, in 2004, the agency decided not to extend protection to the animal. But while it was making its up mind, the U.S. Forest Service was not allowed to poison prairie dogs on government land.
Ranchers say that the pests soon invaded their ranches. The landowners were free to poison prairie dogs on their own property, but they say there was no point in doing that, because the animals would have quickly returned from government land.
The prairie dogs ate all the grass, devoured prickly pear cactus and dug down to get plant roots. They apparently even began to eat their young, said Don Bright, Forest Service supervisor in Chadron, Neb.
"We couldn't act. Our hands were tied," Bright said.
Similarly, Fish and Wildlife officials said they were bound by the procedures and timelines spelled out in the Endangered Special Act.
"Along the way, it caused bumps and inconveniences, but ESA gives you timelines to make a decision, and so we did," said Pete Gober of the Fish and Wildlife office in Pierre.
Jonathan Proctor, a spokesman for the Predator Conservation Alliance, disputed the ranchers' account, saying the bare land was caused not by prairie dogs but by overgrazing during the drought. Some places got just 2 inches of rain over the past two growing seasons.
"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," he said.
By some estimates, the black-tailed prairie dog occupied 100 million acres or more in 11 states before white pioneers arrived in the late 1800s. After years of study, Fish and Wildlife officials ultimately concluded that the prairie dog is hardier and more numerous than they previously thought, covering 1.8 million acres in 10 states. (The species has been eliminated in Arizona.)
Last fall, after Fish and Wildlife decided not to protect prairie dogs, the state started poisoning them on private land for the benefit of ranchers. And federal officials and environmental groups eventually reached a deal allowing poisoning on some public land in a half-mile buffer zone next to private land.
The Forest Service plans to finish an environmental study by this summer on how to deal with prairie dogs over the long term. Meanwhile, South Dakota lawmakers are considering a state plan to use a combination of poisoning, incentive payments to ranchers and other techniques to keep the prairie dog population down.
"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," said South Dakota Agriculture Secretary Larry Gabriel, who owns a ranch.
Environmentalists groups are worried.
"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.
As for the ranchers, Heinrichs sold his 150 cows last year, and does not know whether he will stay on the ranch he has owned for 25 years. Just down the road, Charles Kruse, a rancher in the Conata Basin, said he has sold a third of his herd and might have to sell more this year.
Kruse said that instead of protecting the land, the government has allowed prairie dogs to strip away the grass needed for grazing.
"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."