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December 11, 2006
In Kansas, a Line Is Drawn Around a Prairie Dog Town

RUSSELL SPRINGS, Kan., Dec. 6 — On Wednesday, the prairie dog poisoners stayed home.

Their absence, in a landscape whose contours are etched by absence — not many trees, not many hills, not many people — would have been unremarkable had it not been for the general expectation that the day would bring a climactic confrontation over the fate of the largest prairie dog colony in Kansas.

The Logan County commissioners want the prairie dogs dead. But two ranchers, Larry Haverfield and Gordon Barnhardt, and their allies in two environmental groups want the 5,500-acre colony on their property to flourish, for the good of the land and for the eventual delectation of black-footed ferrets. The ferrets, an endangered mammal, thrive on a diet of prairie dogs.

The ranchers’ defense of prairie dogs prompted bewilderment then anger in this county of about 3,100 people. Here in this red corner of a red state, where the sanctity of property rights is seldom questioned and the sanity of the government is questioned all the time, the prairie dog debate has turned everything upside down.

Some people are demanding enforcement of a century-old state law allowing the county to send exterminators onto the Haverfield and Barnhardt ranches — against the owners’ wishes but at their expense — to protect local property values.

This confrontation is one of several in recent years across the West that pit property owners trying to restore wildlife against local governments who see the actions as a threat to local economic interests. It also reflects the persistent belief in the Great Plains that the prairie dog is not a valued remnant of the short-grass prairie of the past, but a despised pest that eats grass needed to fatten cattle.

Alan Pollom, the director of the Kansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy, called the question of conserving prairie dogs “one of the more vexing problems you can possibly come up with in the arena of wildlife management” because property lines tend to be incompatible with the prairie dogs’ age-old practice of digging new holes and expanding their tunneled colonies across the landscape.

The anger at the large prairie dog town was sharpened when the federal Fish and Wildlife Service began to consider a proposal by the two ranchers to reintroduce the black-footed ferret on their lands. It is widely believed here that having an endangered species anywhere near one’s land means nothing but trouble.

Mr. Haverfield, who is 70, and his wife, Betty, 71, are perfectly content to have neighbors and friends shoot some of the thousands of prairie dogs for sport. They just do not want them poisoned en masse. Neither does Mr. Barnhardt, who lives a few counties away and whose land Mr. Haverfield keeps an eye on.

The Haverfield way of ranching — rotation grazing, a rarity in this region — is designed to mimic the patterns of bison grazing. By moving the cows from pasture to pasture quickly, he said, he can accommodate both cattle and rodent, improve the soil and the grass and promote the return of those species drawn either to prairie dogs’ abandoned holes (such as burrowing owls and badgers) or to their flesh (foxes, rattlesnakes, hawks and eagles).

In recent years, as the prairie dog town expanded, “We’re seeing some species that we’ve never seen before,” Mr. Haverfield said, as his 1979 Ford pickup lumbered over some thoroughly munched grass and beneath a high-soaring golden eagle. “Other animals are affected,” he added. “The swift fox eats prairie dogs. So do the ferruginous hawks. And coyotes.”

A few miles north, Byron Sowers, a neighbor of Mr. Haverfield’s, was busy with the wintertime weaning of this year’s calves. Mr. Sowers’s voice has been among the loudest of those demanding that the county do something about the prairie dogs, which he says are exporting their young to his land.

“It’s devaluing my property,” Mr. Sowers said, raising his voice to be heard over the complaining calves.

He does not necessarily share the other widespread — and, environmentalists say, unproven — belief that cattle break their legs in prairie dog holes. But because the rodents compete for grass, renting out grassland with prairie dogs brings in less money, the county appraiser confirmed. In general, Mr. Sowers feels about ranching near a prairie dog town the way urban parents feel about living near a halfway house.

Mr. Sowers argues that his 900-acre property bordering Mr. Haverfield’s had only 10 acres of prairie dog town when he bought it. Now, he said, despite annual poisonings costing $2,500 or more, the colony covers 500 acres.

He blames Mr. Haverfield’s rodents. He may well be right; the tendency of prairie dogs to seek new territory is well-established — although so is the tendency of the remnants of a poisoned colony to multiply quickly, especially during droughts like the current one.

Jonathan Proctor, a prairie dog specialist with Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group, is fond of asking why this native of the Great Plains, which once numbered in the billions, cannot be allowed a few thousand acres.

“Maybe it is possible,” Mr. Sowers said. “But we don’t want it around us.”

Mr. Sowers’s position reflects the common wisdom of 100 years of settlement in the dry western plains. An essay by Steve C. Forrest and James C. Luchsinger in the book “Conservation of the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog” (Island Press, 2006) describes how federal biologists in the early 20th century fattened their budgets by joining the farmers and cattlemen in a huge prairie dog eradication campaign.

That campaign lasted more than half a century and killed billions of prairie dogs. In 1901, Kansas passed a law giving county governments the right to send poisoners onto private land, at the owner’s expense, if neighbors complained. That law is at the root of the current stalemate.

More than a year ago, Mr. Sowers and other neighbors of Mr. Haverfield’s began complaining that the prairie dogs were out of control.

At about the same time, Ron Klataske, the executive director of Audubon of Kansas, suggested the Haverfields offer their land to federal officials as a site for black-footed ferrets. Ten other ferret-reintroduction projects are centered on federal or native lands. That news inflamed an already tense situation. The Endangered Species Act’s prohibitions against intentionally harming an endangered animal conjured up fears that a dead ferret found on someone’s property could be turned into a federal case, literally. “Things happen to animals,” Mr. Sowers said. “Would I have to prove that I didn’t kill it?”

Mike LaValley, supervisor of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s Kansas office, said that Mr. Sowers’s fear was unfounded.

In February, Mr. Sowers threatened to sue the Logan County Commission if it did not enforce the 1901 law. Mr. Haverfield suggested a compromise, a 90-foot buffer zone of poisoned land, with an electric fence. The commissioners rejected it.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Mr. Haverfield said he had seen a man applying Rozol, a poison in pellet form, around prairie dog holes on Mr. Barnhardt’s land. Mr. Haverfield said he had run him off.

In a defensive maneuver, the two ranchers decided to put their cattle around the prairie dog town. It is a violation of federal rules to apply Rozol near cattle.

The county commissioners shot back a letter to the ranchers saying that if the cattle were not gone by Dec. 6, a new round of poisoning would begin, with an expensive gas that is considered safe near cattle. “What else can you do?” said Nick Scott, a commissioner. “This is something we have to control.”

On Tuesday, the day before the deadline, Mr. Haverfield’s lawyer sent the commission a letter threatening legal action. All Wednesday, the Haverfields and Mr. Barnhardt’s daughter and son-in-law, three neighbors and two environmentalists kept watch. No poisoners came.

They later learned why: the county commissioners were waiting to hear from their insurers’ lawyers. “We won’t do anything unless our lawyers tell us we can,” Mr. Scott said.

Mr. LaValley of the Fish and Wildlife Service called the uproar discouraging.

As for the ferret-reintroduction proposal, he said, “All I can tell you is things are not looking good.”

Mr. Scott said this had been the most divisive issue in Logan County since the county seat was moved to Oakley from Russell Springs half a century ago.

But Mr. Haverfield said his relationships with his neighbors had been affected very little. “I’m kind of a loner,” he said. “This hasn’t changed anything that much.”


I wonder if Prairie Dog is good eats? People used to keep pigeon cotes, and rabbits and so forth... why not Prairie Dogs? If they eat the same stuff that beef cattle do - grass - how bad can they be? Of course, I approve of people trying to raise cattle on grass, that is the best way to raise beef, but I don't approve of monocultures. Too delicate to protect effectively in this day and age. Really. It would be a bit more complicated but it would be safer. Food security is an important issue.


Brrr. On one hand, I could turn up the heat, on the other, I could put on anther layer or two. However, I don't want to end up like that kid in The Christmas Story.

Date: 2006-12-11 07:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Native Americans have eaten prarie dog cooked in clay.
Unfortunately, I've read one or two cases of this resulting in the human contracting bubonic plague from the rodent, so I wouldn't advise same.

Date: 2006-12-11 07:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
bubonic plague, that we carried over with us during colonialization no doubt. A couple of cases out of (probably) millions consumed? No biggie.

I think I'd like to try me some though. I wonder if it was considered typical fare, if it was considered to be tasty. Hrm.

Thanks for the info, btw. :D

Date: 2006-12-11 07:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Not a problem. I wouldn't take the paucity of cases for low-risk, however. It could be that there aren't THAT many people trying to eat 'em, so the case number is actual substantial per capita of exposures.

I have eaten squirrels, though. They're pretty good.


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