August 24, 2008

Prairie Dog Activist Says Critters Helpful

Jeffrey Harsh admits he would try just about anything to save the prairie dog.

Not content to sit and watch counties and landowners across the plains wipe the land clean of the critters, he wants to do something - plead the case of the prairie dog, if you will.

His recent plea has some wildlife preservationists nodding their heads in agreement, but other folks are chuckling in their chairs.

The theory - espoused by others over the years - is that by burrowing the land above one of the world's largest underground water supply, prairie dogs loosen the soil and allow rain to seep through and recharge it.

More prairie dogs throughout the plains would mean more rainwater into the depleting Ogallala aquifer, which supplies water to eight states.

"Prairie dogs can penetrate the zone" of the Ogallala "that rainwater can't do on its own," said Harsh, who owns an animal refuge in western Kansas' Logan County. "People have deemed them as being from the dark side ... but, yes, the prairie dog is a major player in allowing the aquifer to be replenished."

Some say that is just a myth, one more effort to save the prairie dogs.

Many farmers and ranchers have maintained the animals cause havoc on their land. Through the years, the prairie dog population has been significantly scaled back to a fraction of what it once was.

"Help recharge the" Ogallala "aquifer?" Joel Schneekloth, a regional water resource specialist with the Colorado State University extension, said with a laugh. "I've heard a lot of wild, goofy ideas, and this is one of them."

Schneekloth says there is no proof, no scientific evidence that says one of cattle ranchers' worst nightmares could be a water- supply blessing. As Schneekloth put it: "In our business, we have to go with science and what you can prove."

OK, Harsh and some wildlife preservationists say, then do some analysis. See whether it's true. And do it soon. "Do it before it's too late, before they're all gone," Harsh said. "My goal is to lighten up on the poor critters. They are being obliterated."

There is no harm in studying the idea that prairie dogs could help the aquifer, some say.

"It's always a good question," said Jack Cully of the Kansas Cooperative and Wildlife Research Unit at Kansas State University. "And maybe someone can come up with an answer."

Prairie dogs have become popular targets for eradication in recent years. Many farmers say the creatures eat grass meant for cattle, attract rattlesnakes and leave behind a maze of holes in pastures.

If you are a farmer or a rancher, prairie dogs have never been one of the things you wanted too many of," said Heather Whitlaw, wildlife diversity biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "But somebody who is really passionate about cute little creatures, prairie dogs are the ones for them."

Originally published by The Kansas City Star.

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