Prairie dogs are in trouble. Reduced to just a fraction of their former range, prairie dogs have fewer places to scamper free where they can till the soil and provide sustenance and shelter for other important prairie species. As a result, black-footed ferrets, badgers, foxes and eagles all suffer.
But Defenders has made tremendous strides in recent years to preserve remaining stretches of prime habitat and eliminate persistent threats to prairie dog survival. Finally, at least in a few places, prairie dogs may be returning home for good.
Some of our remedies, in the case of dangerous poisons, have been through taking legal action. In 2009, Defenders filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for allowing the use of Rozol and Kaput-D, two chemicals used to poison prairie dogs, across 10 different states. Yet states like Kansas are now making it easier for farmers and ranchers to apply Rozol and poison prairie dogs using ATVs with mechanical feeders instead of applying it by hand down each burrow entrance.
Defenders also successfully organized a campaign in 2008 to stop the former Bush administration from poisoning tens of thousands of prairie dogs in Conata Basin, South Dakota, in the most significant remaining prairie dog colonies on public land in the Great Plains. We stopped this drastic plan by generating significant attention, including a spot on CNN, and through organizing tens of thousands of people to write in opposition.
Defenders has also helped ranchers like Larry and Bette Haverfield stand tall against prairie dog poisoning. The Haverfields have challenged a 100-year-old law that would allow commissioners of Logan County, Kansas to poison prairie dogs on their property without permission. Instead, the Haverfields have protected the prairie dogs and even permitted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce ferrets on their ranch.
Other strategies have been much more successful. Last summer, Defenders’ prairie species expert Jonathan Proctor helped move more than 500 prairie dogs out of harm’s way at Thunder Basin National Grassland. The animals were moved from an area abutting private ranch land, where they were threatened with poisoning, to the center of a protected area. This precedent-setting collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming Game and Fish, a local ranchers’ consortium and other conservation groups will hopefully pave the way for a new management style that replaces a “p0ison first” mentality with nonlethal tools that also restore wildlife to key protected areas.
Native American tribes have also been key partners in restoring prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and countless other species. With some of the best remaining habitat under their control, the Cheyenne River, Rosebud and Lower Brule Reservations in South Dakota and the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana have all emerged as wildlife conservation leaders. All have reintroduced black-footed ferrets to large prairie dog colonies. Defenders has been honored to work with tribes and and contribute financial support when it was most needed, as well as helping to spread the word about their achievements.
Read more about the Thunder Basin projects and efforts to vaccinate prairie dogs for plague in the latest issue of Defenders Magazine. Also keep an eye out in the coming weeks and months for reports from the field (and the courts) on Defenders efforts to save prairie dogs, including video footage of Jonathan Proctor at Thunder Basin.
In case you’re just tuning in to the series, track back to see our posts about prairie dog behavior, their role as a keystone species, an unusual encounter between a prairie dog and a ferret, and the major threats they face.