High Plains Stewards: Burrowing Into the Mythology about Prairie Dogs

A popular fiction in South Dakota and elsewhere is that one nibble, one burrow, one high-pitched chirp at a time, the black-tailed prairie dog is invading and destroying grasslands for livestock. As Blaine Harden recently reported in The Washington Post, third-generation rancher Charles Kruze even compared South Dakota’s rodential downpour to a “prairie fire” sweeping across the plains. The irony of Kruze’s analogy is that prairie fires, like prairie dogs, are restorative forces that keep the ecosystem healthy and balanced. A misinformed mythology of prairie dogs as apocalyptic pests, however, now threatens a nearly endangered species that is both native and beneficial to the prairie and those who graze it.

What inspires this misguided antipathy, as I discovered during my 11 months in 2002 as the news writer for The Pioneer Review, a weekly newspaper in the small ranching community of Philip, South Dakota (pop. 850), is more misunderstanding than reality, and more due to human development than to animal nature. I have also since found ample studies defending the compatibility of livestock and prairie dogs in their natural plains habitat.

“The Role of Prairie Dogs as Keystone Species: Response to Stapp,” an 11-author collaboration in 2000 from Conservation Biology, rebuts many of the exaggerated claims of prairie dog destructiveness. “[P]rairie dog colonies,” the group writes, “support higher numbers of nematodes [worms] and higher levels of soil nitrogen. This gives plants a higher nutritional content, higher digestibility, and a greater ratio of live plants to dead plants, and those changes play a role in creating favorable feeding habitat for other herbivores.” Other herbivores, that is, like bison and cattle, which have historically shown preferences to graze, breed and rest in eco-harmony with prairie dogs.

Conflict over space only arises when prairie dogs have to compete in unnaturally close quarters with cattle and crops. Once almost uncountable from Texas north through the Great Plains (one early 1900s prairie dog town reportedly covered 25,000 square miles and housed a projected 400 million residents), prairie dogs have lost at least 98 percent of their original range. Nowadays they reside mostly on grassland islands, where they are asked to obey fence and property lines.

In this unnatural containment the prairie dog as official pest is born. Pressed up against cropland or boxed into a handful of acres, prairie dogs cannot preserve their habitat indefinitely without fanning out as they used to do on the open prairie, and as they still do when allowed to share large pastures with cattle. Outward expansion of towns, importantly, does not occur at the expense of forage quality. Indeed prairie dogs maintain permanent residences as responsible grazers. The problem is that artificially constricted colonies can result in the land’s lowered carrying capacity for livestock. And these human-manufactured results are now dangerously mistaken as inevitable consequences of prairie dogs, hence their doomsday reputation.

Janie and Dr. John Malm live near the small farming community of Gregory, South Dakota, and on their farm the two play landlord to a 30-acre prairie dog town. This colony’s narrow boundaries have long compelled the more than 1,000 residents to overpopulate. With dens packed densely together, the town more resembles a churned-up rodeo arena than a grassland community. These days, then, the Malms’ prairie dogs are naughtily tempted to seek additional forage in the greener fields and cropland around them.

“We really have trouble keeping them out of our crops, whether it’s corn, alfalfa or soy beans,” says Janie. “We’ve tried to manage them to keep them back, but they just come back more and more.”

Prairie dogs aren’t pen animals. Only because of its unnaturally close borders has Janie’s colony become a hazardous minefield of burrows. The more condensed their habitat is, the more condensed their dens become. Allow prairie dogs room to roam, in other words, and they won’t build on top of each other or compete with livestock for the grasslands—they will co-exist.

As long as they are viewed as furry weeds, though, prairie dogs will continue to find themselves bulldozed, recreationally shot and poisoned by the tens of thousands each year. These removal efforts, ironically, have proven far more devastating to the plains ecosystem than prairie dogs could ever be. As many as 170 species, the “Keystone Species” study notes, benefit from prairie dog activity. Nine, in fact, depend on prairie dog colonies for their habitat, including the black-footed ferret, burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle and swift fox. Stewards of the grasslands, prairie dogs support a vast network of plains species. So when my uncles poisoned the lone colony on my family’s farm near Gregory in 1986, an entire wildlife community died with the prairie dogs. A flourishing ecosystem, alive with burrowing owls and noisy plovers, became a silent ghost town.

Prairie dog conservation efforts have so far stalled in theory only for reasons of expense, ideology and awareness, but not feasibility. The chief hang-up has been cost, as farmers are unwilling to trade cropland for colonies. My family’s prairie dog town, after all, was sacrificed for a few extra acres of alfalfa. And few ranchers, convinced as they are of the prairie dog menace, are keen to tolerate towns on their pastures. Yet if we can make prairie dog tenants more financially manageable, perhaps we can then re-educate farmers and ranchers to respect the biodiversity of these communities—to see prairie dogs rightfully as improving rather than destroying grasslands, as a crux rather than crucifix of the ecosystem.

Offering financial/tax incentives to encourage the re-introduction or protection of colonies, reserving federal grasslands as sanctuaries, transplanting isolated towns to larger pastures, re-introducing predator species, developing biological birth control, and increasing accurate publicity of prairie dogs in rural communities and state newspapers: each measure could help negotiate a respectful balance between livestock and wildlife needs. These changes aren’t all easy fixes, but they are necessary. For as long as fears of prairie dogs “burning” through the grasslands remain unchallenged, then we’ll continue to endanger the diverse ecosystem and productivity of the plains.

CONTACT: Read E Magazine‘s July/August 2004 feature about prairie dogs at: emagazine.com/view/?1868

Karl Wirsing is a graduate student at Emerson College in Boston and the former editor and news writer at The Pioneer Review, a small weekly paper serving the ranching community of Philip, South Dakota.