September 2, 2008

Burrowing Prairie Dogs Help Aquifer, Preservationist Says

By Laura Bauer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - 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, well, 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 going into the depleting Ogallala aquifer, which supplies water to eight states, including Kansas.

"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's just a myth, one more effort to save the prairie dogs.

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

The war over the critters has become so fierce that it landed in a Logan County courtroom last year. One farmer, Larry Haverfield, understands the need for prairie dogs and wants them on his land, but when other farmers complained, the county intervened and did what state law allows counties to do: lay poison when landowners won't.

But as for that theory about the water supply?

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

Schneekloth says there's 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 said, 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."

That's the hope. Jonathan Proctor, the Southern Rockies and Great Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said it would benefit everyone to know what effect - if any - prairie dogs have on the aquifer.

"It seems to be fairly obvious that any large burrow system allows rainwater to percolate into the ground far better than without them," Proctor said. "Clearly, holes in the ground help. ... how much they do, I have no idea."

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.

Black-tailed prairie dogs also are considered a keystone species. That means they affect the prairie ecosystem in many positive ways, from being a main food source for various species to loosening up the soil.

Originally published by McClatchy Newspapers.

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