IN THE FIELD: (Prairie) Dog Days Of Summer

Hundreds more prairie dogs moved to safety at Thunder Basin

Eric, Jonathan and Lacy, prairie dog relocators. Photo by Lindsey Sterling Krank.

For the second year in a row, black-tailed prairie dogs at Thunder Basin National Grassland in eastern Wyoming are getting a reprieve from the “poison-first” mentality that is all too common across the Great Plains. Last week, Defenders’ Bozeman staffer Lacy Gray, Wildlife Volunteer Corps participant Eric Paprocki and I helped the U.S. Forest Service and our conservation partners relocate – rather than poison – 248 prairie dogs from areas at the edge of Thunder Basin where they are not wanted to a fully-protected area in its core that has been designated for wildlife recovery.

Why is this such a big deal? Let’s consider the big picture. Americans own more than three million acres in nine national grasslands across the Great Plains, managed on our behalf by the U.S. Forest Service. One of the most important “keystone” species of the Great Plains is the black-tailed prairie dog, whose colonies once covered 10-20 percent of the Great Plains and provided an immense source of food and habitat for dozens of other animals.

Sadly, prairie dogs – and some of the animals that depend on them – have declined by more than 95 percent across the Great Plains due to poisoning, shooting, plowing and non-native disease. They continue to be poisoned and shot even on our national grasslands. But at Thunder Basin National Grassland, this is changing thanks to a new plan that includes nonlethal management and active restoration. This new plan is not perfect, but it is a good compromise that included enough of a commitment to prairie dog restoration that Defenders could get behind it.

Prairie dog awaits release into its new home. Photo by Lacy Gray.

And get behind it we did: working 12- to 16-hour days, waking from our tents before dawn and enduring the relentless heat, wind and mosquitoes that are so ubiquitous in this landscape.

We used two methods to capture the prairie dogs. One method is trapping, which involves setting and baiting hundreds of traps. The other method is filling burrows with soapy water to force out the prairie dogs. Neither is all that fun for the prairie dogs, but both sure beat a slow death by poison.

At the relocation site we built cages over old burrow entrances to keep prairie dogs on site so they could acclimate to their new homes. We moved them as family units, a proven way to increase success rates. After three days, we removed the cages and let the prairie dogs decide to stay or leave. It appeared most – if not all – liked the new location, and began feeding on nearby grasses almost immediately.

Last year’s precedent-setting relocation effort saved 550 prairie dogs and restored over 100 acres of prairie dog colonies. This year’s effort promises similar results (the Forest Service is continuing to relocate animals for a few more weeks).

But this is just one part of the restoration effort. In addition to relocating prairie dogs rather than just killing them, the Forest Service is also prohibiting prairie dog shooting in a large core area, encouraging prairie dog colony expansion through burning and dusting prairie dog burrows to protect them from deadly plague.

The Forest Service gave us awards for our work. Photo by Lacy Gray.

Basically, the Forest Service is using every tool in the toolbox to work toward the new plan’s goal of restoring 18,000 acres of prairie dog colonies in the protected area. This may sound like a lot of land, but it is less than four percent of this 550,000-acre national grassland.

During the public input process for this new plan, Defenders promised to offer assistance if the Forest Service chose to include nonlethal management. We are pleased to be able to make good on that promise, alongside our friends at the Humane Society of the United States, World Wildlife Fund and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

We thank the Forest Service employees who are making this philosophical shift possible, specifically retired Forest Supervisor Mary Peterson, Deputy District Ranger Misty Hays and District Biologist Cristi Painter. Way to go! We look forward to similar reforms at all nine national grasslands.

Here’s a slideshow of last week’s work.

Prairie dog release, © Eric Paprocki

Jonathan, lovin' the bumper sticker.

Prairie dog release site, © Jonathan Proctor/Defenders

Lacy and Eric prepare a new prairie dog home. The cages come off after three days, which allows the prairie dogs to acclimate to their new home rather than immediately running off. Photo by Jonathan Proctor.

Cages, © Kristy Bly

Photo by Kristy Bly.

Prairie dog traps, © Defenders of Wildlife

Besides trapping, we used soapy water to force prairie dogs out of their burrows. This is faster than trapping and also makes keeping families together much easier. We placed them in animal carriers and transported them to their new home. Photo by Jonathan Proctor.

Prairie dog capture, © Jonathan Proctor/Defenders

Flushing out prairie dogs with soapy water. Photo by Jonathan Proctor.

Soapy escapee

An escapee covered in soap suds. Once caught, we towel them off and squirt saline solution in their eyes to clear out the suds. Photo by Lacy Gray.

Prairie dog cages, © Jonathan Proctor/Defenders

A truck of prairie dogs. Each cage is marked to make sure families are released together into their new burrows. Photo by Jonathan Proctor.

Prairie dog in cage, © Lacy Gray/Defenders

A relocation project at Thunder Basin National Grassland in eastern Wyoming has helped save prairie dogs from shooting and poisoning.. Photo by Lacy Gray.

Releasing prairie dogs, © Eric Paprocki

Jonathan and Lindsey (HSUS) release a juvenile prairie dog into its new home. The cages come off after three days of acclimation to the new location. Photo by Eric Paprocki.

Prairie dog release, © Jonathan Proctor/Defenders

Lacy about to release a juvenile prairie dog into its new home. Photo by Jonathan Proctor.

The release

Lacy releases a prairie dog to its new home. Photo by Jonathan Proctor.

Prairie dog release, © Lacy Gray/Defenders

Not excited about being moved into his new home, a juvenile prairie dog bites Jonathan right through the glove. Photo by Lacy Gray.

Prairie dog release, © Jonathan Proctor/Defenders

Eric removing the cage after three days. Prairie dogs usually come out of the burrows within a few minutes and seem satisfied with their new location. Photo by Jonathan Proctor.

Prairie sunset

Sunset on the prairie. Photo by Jonathan Proctor.

Field team, © Lindsey Sterling Krank

Eric, Jonathan and Lacy, prairie dog relocators. Photo by Lindsey Sterling Krank.

Forest Service Awards, © Lacy Gray/Defenders

The Forest Service gave us awards for our work. Photo by Lacy Gray.

4 Responses to “IN THE FIELD: (Prairie) Dog Days Of Summer”

  1. Kimberly Clark

    You guys have the best jobs in the world….great work! I wish you could go help the tigers.

  2. Lou Hanebury

    This is a wonderful effort and great success story. This accomplishment is diametrically opposite to the many other efforts that never happened due to government apathy, political pressure and public ignorance. Nice to see the Forest Service actually doing something. Great job guys.

    Lou Hanbury

  3. Megan

    Awesome work! What do I have to do to get your job (education track?)

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