Note: six sidebar articles accompany this feature story. All are available in the "Related stories" section of this online issue.
On a sunny fall day about a year ago, Jonathan Proctor arrived in the prairie community of Chadron, Neb., for an evening of proselytizing.
Though groomed to become a Lutheran minister like his father, the boyish-looking 31-year-old had not come to town to save souls.
His was a more difficult task. He would try to convince local ranchers to end their 100-year war against the lowly black-tailed prairie dog.
To spread the word about the meeting to come, Proctor, who works for the Bozeman, Mont.-based Predator Project, was interviewed on a local radio show. He explained how the prairie dogs are a cornerstone of the shortgrass prairie and how a Noah's Ark assortment of animals depends to some degree on dog towns for food and shelter.
He told listeners how farmers and a decades-long eradication program funded by federal and state governments have wiped out so many prairie dogs that they now occupy less than 1 percent of their historic territory - an area that once spanned the Great Plains, from Canada to Mexico. Without help, he said, prairie dogs were in deep trouble.
The radio signal must have carried, Proctor says, because about 60 ranchers showed up for his slide show - and they were itching for a fight.
One rancher grabbed a pile of T-shirts Proctor was selling that were emblazoned with images of prairie dogs.
"I'm going to steal these just like those prairie dogs are stealing my grass," he told Proctor.
Although the rancher eventually surrendered the shirts, he and his cohorts heckled Proctor's presentation throughout the evening. U.S. Forest Service employees from a nearby national grasslands remained silent.
"That was a tough town," says Proctor, who visited 30 others in Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana last year.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise. Mention prairie dogs to folks in most rural Western communities, and you're more likely to get a scowl than an "oh-they're-so-cute."
The short-tailed rodent that trims prairie vegetation and rototills the soil is widely considered a pest. Besides eating grass earmarked for cows, prairie dogs can undermine fence posts and chew into underground power and phone lines. Building managers along Colorado's Front Range even complain of prairie dogs entering office buildings by triggering automatic doors. Since the animal sometimes harbors fleas infected with bubonic plague, some consider it a health menace.
"The level of hate for this species even surpasses that for wolves," says Proctor, who started studying prairie dogs five years ago as a graduate student at the University of Montana in Missoula.
But just as the big bad wolf has begun to find redemption in the West, so might the prairie dog, thanks to the efforts of Proctor and a handful of other conservationists and scientists.
Last summer, for the first time ever, a national grasslands in South Dakota outlawed "sport" shooting on a sprawling prairie dog town. It was done to protect the black-footed ferret, North America's most endangered mammal, which feasts exclusively on the dogs.
On the heels of that decision came petitions from several environmental groups. The National Wildlife Federation, the Predator Project, and the Boulder, Colo.-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the black-tailed prairie dog as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency has now agreed to study the species to see if it warrants listing, a decision that is sending shockwaves through the Western cattle and real estate industries (HCN, 2/1/99).
"Can anyone truly believe that a subspecies with millions of members ranging over 800,000 acres of the West is really in need of protection?" thundered former Idaho Sen. James McClure in a Missoulian editorial.
"I think this whole prairie dog thing is part of the big conspiracy by the National Wildlife Federation to depopulate the West and do that Buffalo Commons thing," said rancher Jim Darlington of New Castle, Wyo.
The Farm Bureau, a powerful lobbying group for corporate agriculture, suggested that the species name be changed to the prairie rat "because of the perception of prairie dogs as being comparable to poodles or other small canines by those people unfamiliar with them." Farm Bureau officials say the new name would be a "more descriptive and fitting label for this rodent."
An underdog gets attention
Though wielding the Endangered Species Act on behalf of the prairie dog has raised the ire of traditional Western interests, it has also pushed reluctant federal and state agencies into action.
The Forest Service banned poisoning of black-tailed prairie dogs this spring on all 20 national grasslands until the government decides whether the animals are endangered. And a draft management plan for the seven national grasslands in Wyoming, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Colorado recommends expanding tenfold the range of prairie dogs on land they currently occupy.
Also kicking into gear are 11 Western states where black-tailed prairie dog habitat is found - Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
The states have quickly penned a conservation strategy in hopes of convincing the federal government that a listing - and the regulations that come with it - will be unnecessary.
Conservationists worry the states may just be giving lip service to conservation. In many states, the animals can be shot or poisoned at will. But Proctor says, "This could be one of those cases where we have a huge success story in a decade."
A relentless assault
To understand how remarkable these recent developments are, one need only look at how mercilessly prairie dogs have been assaulted over the past century.
In 1902, the federal government fueled the eradication effort when it announced that prairie dogs reduced the amount of forage available to cattle by 50-75 percent.
In 1924, researchers W.P. Taylor and J.V.G. Loftfield described the prairie dog as "one of the most injurious rodents of the Southwest and Plains regions," because it "removed vegetation in its entirety from the vicinity of its home."
Those early reports fueled a wave of eradication that led to the poisoning of 20 million acres of prairie dog towns. In some years, the federal government hired 125,000 people to carry out the poisonings.
Add to that the millions of acres plowed under by homesteaders, as well as the species' periodic susceptibility to plague, and 99 percent of the historic population - estimated at 5 billion - is gone.
The rodents have been wiped out in Arizona, and barely hold on in other Southwestern states. Texas, which once accounted for 50 percent of the West's black-tailed prairie dogs (including one town that measured a whopping 250 miles long and 100 miles wide) now contains only 10 percent of the remaining population.
Only Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota harbor large colonies, with many of these on Indian reservations. Most prairie dogs survive in isolated towns less than 100 acres in size.
Publicly owned lands have offered little refuge for the prairie dog. Of the 3.1 million acres within our 20 national grasslands, only 25,000 acres, or approximately 0.8 percent of the total holdings, are occupied by black-tailed prairie dogs. That's mostly because federal managers have poisoned prairie dogs or encouraged shooting to keep numbers down to please the ranchers who graze nearly every acre of the grasslands.
Current management plans give prairie dogs little breathing room. In South Dakota, the Fall River ranger management plan requires no more than eight prairie dog colonies. In Kansas, the Cimarron National Grasslands management plan specifies maintaining only 12 to 25 colonies on 1.1 percent of a total 108,177 acres.
It's much the same in Colorado. The 1997 plan for Pawnee National Grassland calls for maintaining only 0.5 percent of its 193,060 acres for prairie dogs.
The National Park Service is also a great dog poisoner. At South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park, park officials poison prairie dogs any time they take up more than 700 acres, according to Proctor, who has surveyed prairie dog poisoning programs on public lands throughout the West. But that limit is based on the number of acres occupied by the animals in a 1937 aerial photo, a time when prairie dog numbers were already severely depressed from poisonings, he says.
Scientists today say the animal has always gotten a bum rap.
"Even though prairie dog towns appear to be desolate, they are full of plant life," says Craig Knowles, an independent ecologist who did the survey work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showing that prairie dog numbers are continuing to decline.
"The animal's digging activity disturbs the soil, and weedy plants take over, much like in a cultivated field. When closely cropped, these plants become higher in protein and nitrogen content and are sought out by cattle, bison, antelope and elk."
Nonetheless, "a lot of people, agencies and institutions haven't done well by the black-tailed prairie dog," says National Wildlife Federation attorney Tom France. "They haven't wanted to make decisions based on fact."
Bill Ruediger, a Forest Service ecologist, agrees. "It's shameful how we're managing this creature," he says. "I can't think of another species that's in as bad a shape as this one."
Recreating the prairie ecosystem
If the prairie dog is in bad shape, then so are other animals in the Great Plains, says John Sidle, the U.S. Forest Service's threatened and endangered species coordinator for the Great Plains.
Get rid of the rodent and its burrows, and a half-dozen other mammals and birds, such as the mountain plover, could disappear, Sidle says.
With its relatively long legs and small body, the plover resembles a killdeer but bears a white patch on its breast. Once it was common; today, biologists estimate only 4,300 to 5,600 plovers remain, with about 90 percent of mountain plover sightings occurring in prairie dog towns. That's where insects congregate, says biologist Knowles, who mapped plover nesting sites for Montana wildlife officials.
Then there is the black-footed ferret, the sleek little predator that was considered extinct until a rancher's dog led to the discovery of a dozen in a small prairie dog town outside Meeteetse, Wyo., in 1981.
The ferrets captured there are the Adams and Eves of a successful captive breeding program, their progeny reintroduced at a half dozen sites across the country. The ferret not only dines on prairie dogs, it also lives in their burrows to escape predators such as coyotes (HCN, 12/8/97).
But while the recovery plan for ferrets specifies that reintroduction sites must contain at least 10,000 acres of prairie dog habitat, biologists now target 5,000-acre sites because few larger sites remain.
Yet large complexes are the "true expressions of shortgrass prairie ecology," says Sidle. "The ferret wouldn't have evolved without them."
The disappearance of large complexes prompted Peter Gober, head of the federal ferret-recovery team, to write a warning to grassland managers last year. He said that if any of the few large prairie dog towns were lost, it was unlikely that the ferrets would be downlisted from endangered to threatened status, the goal of the federal recovery plan.
The message hit home in Conata Basin, part of South Dakota's Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The 70,000-acre basin is home to one of the most successful black-footed ferret reintroduction sites: In 1998, 53 ferrets roamed the expansive prairie dog towns.
But the basin has also been under periodic, heavy shooting pressure. When varmint-hunter magazines publicized Conata Basin as an ideal shooting area in 1997, up to 4,000 gunners flocked there. On Forest Service questionnaires, shooters claimed to bag from 50 to 100 dogs a day.
The shooting frenzy, along with Gober's warning letter, convinced Buffalo Gap District Ranger Bill Perry to abruptly ban all shooting in the basin last summer.
"We're concerned that a dozen ferrets may now be living within the shooting areas," Perry explains. The shooting ban on a national grassland was a first for prairie dogs.
A tough plan is proposed
Conservationists would love to see a widespread halt to shooting and poisoning so that more of the small, scattered towns on the national grasslands can grow into large complexes.
They may get their wish on the seven northernmost grasslands, if the Forest Service sticks to its guns. This July, the agency released its draft Northern Great Plains Plan Revision; the preferred alternative calls for expanding available room for prairie dogs to nearly 10 percent of the land base.
Guidelines for all the grasslands would also restrict shooting from March 1 to the end of July - the period when prairie dogs are breeding. There would be no shooting at all in potential black-footed ferret reintroduction areas.
The plan also restricts poisoning to places where human health must be considered, or where prairie dogs are migrating across grassland borders onto private lands.
The amount of cattle grazing would decrease under the preferred alternative. For instance, available forage at Thunder Basin National Grassland would drop from a high of 150,000 Animal Unit Months to 133,000. An Animal Unit Month is the amount of forage a calf-cow pair needs for a month.
"It may not result in an actual decrease in numbers of cattle," says Thunder Basin District Manager Malcolm Edwards. "But it may change some grazing patterns."
Ranchers, oil and gas companies and politicians in the Northern Plains say they are worried that the new plan will hurt rural communities.
"We're certainly not short on prairie dogs in North Dakota," North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan told the Bismarck Tribune. "What we're short on is farmers and ranchers."
"The whole damn thing scares me," said Randy Mosser, president of the Medora Grazing Association, whose members use the Little Missouri National Grasslands. "I'm sure some people can handle some reduction (in grazing levels), but not the 25-50 percent that we've been hearing."
Some ranchers say the new plans run counter to history. The federal government bought the grasslands from failed dust bowl farmers in the 1930s with the goal of restoring the grasslands and helping struggling prairie towns. Since then, other federal laws - including the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act - have pushed the federal agencies more toward conservation of wildlife habitat, but the notion that grasslands exist primarily for grazing and mineral extraction runs deep.
An editorial in the Bismarck Tribune, however, struck a more forward-looking tone, noting that wildlife conservation could provide local communities with another economic leg, namely, tourism:
"Are the grasslands simply there as a resource to be exploited? No, values are different from 50 years ago and the method for managing the grasslands has changed as well. Nobody wants to watch a community fall apart. Perhaps this new direction in grasslands management will also stabilize communities in a new day."
"The Forest Service has taken a huge step forward for wildlife with this plan," says Cathy Carlson, who heads the National Wildlife Federation's prairie protection program. "You just can't have cattle mow these places to an inch of stubble every year - which is what has happened for years - and have grass for wildlife."
The plan even includes recommendations for 22,000 acres of wilderness in the Little Missouri National Grasslands.
"I credit (Forest Service Chief) Mike Dombeck for making the prairies important to the Forest Service," Carlson adds. "He's the one who called for the moratorium on prairie dog poisoning, and he will have to face down the South Dakota and North Dakota delegations over this plan. He's ready to take it on the chin."
Jonathan Proctor says he sees one glaring weakness in the Forest Service's plan: it calls for only three new black-footed ferret reintroduction sites, even though the Forest Service has identified nine.
"All nine are critical to the recovery of the ferret," he says.
While conservationists are encouraged by the new plan, some still want the Endangered Species Act to come into play.
"I would hate to see the whole issue dropped because of good management on a very small proportion of prairie dog habitat," says Proctor.
Cathy Carlson says, "A listing will change the politics overnight."
The Forest Service's John Sidle agrees. A listing could help secure money to consolidate mixed private and public lands on the national grasslands, he says. "You'll have a prairie dog town that could easily expand, except it's adjacent to private lands, where they routinely poison."
Sidle says the Forest Service has tentatively begun to do land exchanges with ranchers to consolidate federal holdings, though a listing of the prairie dog could prod the agency into doing much more.
"Rancher willingness is not the issue," he says. "Agency resources and will is."
A late bid by the states
Conservationists say listing the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species will also force state agricultural and county pest agencies in the West to finally show some tolerance for the critter. Just the threat of a listing has already spurred the states into motion, they point out.
"Almost every state that responded to our (Endangered Species Act) petition said, "We don't think the species needs to be listed, but we agree that there is a real problem here," "''''says the National Wildlife Federation's Tom France.
Now, Bill Van Pelt, a nongame mammal specialist with the Arizona Department of Fish and Game, is spearheading an 11-state effort to write a conservation agreement for the black-tailed prairie dogs. He makes no bones about the reason for the plan, which he hopes to have signed by all states by the end of this summer.
"We want to show the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that there is no reason to list the prairie dog at this time," he says.
Van Pelt says he has evidence from aerial surveys suggesting that the species may not be doing as poorly as conservationists believe.
He also says that the recent actions taken by the Forest Service will go a long way toward helping create larger prairie dog populations that will be able to withstand disease.
Still, Van Pelt says the states are ready to take additional steps. One is the establishment of state prairie dog working groups by no later than the end of October.
The working groups will decide on state-specific action plans, which could include recommendations to change the animal's status, upgrading it from "pest" to "nongame," he says. That could eventually lead to regulated seasons on prairie dog shooting and limitations on poisoning.
"In some states, changing the animal's status will require legislation, so we shouldn't expect changes overnight," says Van Pelt.
That's what worries conservationists.
"I'm afraid what they come up with will be very similar to what we have right now," says Proctor.
"This is all about administrative cooperation between states, and not about protection for the prairie dog," echoes Cathy Carlson. "I would be appalled if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took this strategy and said, "Everything will be all right for the prairie dog now." "
Forces aligned against protecting the black-tailed prairie dog remain formidable. Petitioners for an Endangered Species Act listing say they expect stiff resistance from Western congressional delegations who are listening to economically squeezed ranchers, eager developers and property-rights advocates.
Already, there are signs of a backlash. In Montana, some private landowners are trying to wipe out prairie dogs from their land, says Dennis Flath, nongame biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
"The petition has created difficulties for us," he says. "Now private landowners don't want us to find out if there are any prairie dogs. They want to get rid of prairie dogs quickly, while they have the opportunity."
The Montana Department of Agriculture used to get around 20 requests a year for help with poisoning prairie dogs, says Flath. By March this year, there were already about 30 requests.
Proctor, who believes the salvation for an intact prairie dog ecosystem rests on public lands, is not worried about a backlash. He maintains that the increase in poisoning requests is insignificant when compared to the need to catalyze federal agencies into action.
"Most private landowners won't allow 10,000-acre prairie dog complexes on their land, anyway," he says.
Knowles, however, still calls private landowners "very important players in the ecology and conservation of the prairie dog," especially when they control access to state and federal prairie dog habitat.
Tom France says the Endangered Species Act can flex for private landowners who have prairie dogs. The federal government could encourage landowners to put some of their land in conservation easements, he says. Or it could start a conservation "bank." Landowners who want to develop property where prairie dogs live might also pay a fee toward buying prairie dog habitat elsewhere.
"Money can solve a lot of problems," says France.
A wild card
One thing money can't buy the prairie dog is protection from sylvatic plague, which was first recorded in the United States in 1899, when two sailors on a Japanese ship in San Francisco brought the disease with them.
Prairie dogs have almost total lack of natural immunity to the disease and recover slowly from it. At the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado, prairie dog towns hit by plague were still at only 40 percent of pre-plague numbers four years after the epidemic.
In the 1980s, the plague wiped out many prairie dog towns in eastern Montana, cutting the total acreage in half - to about 65,000 acres on 1,200 towns. "Many new towns are less than 10 acres," says Craig Knowles. "The same trend has been observed in other states."
Yet small, isolated populations of prairie dogs on the Great Plains may also have been their saving grace. In a 1995 report, Knowles concluded that prairie dogs survived simply because they had dispersed populations.
Still, conservationists don't see that as any reason not to develop larger and connected prairie dog complexes. Isolation brings its own risks: Small towns can more easily succumb to predation, shooting and poisoning.
Speaking for the Predator Project, Proctor believes the key to guaranteeing the future of the species is rebuilding large complexes on public lands.
"If we act now on public lands, private landowners will not be faced with restrictions," he says. "And if the agencies push for protecting a 10 percent minimum of suitable prairie dog habitat on public lands where it historically occurred, then we wouldn't need a lawsuit."
Mark Matthews writes from Hot Springs, Montana. HCN senior editor Paul Larmer contributed to this report.
You can contact ...
* Northern Great Plains Planning Team, USDA Forest Service, 125 N. Main St., Chadron, NE 69337 (308/432-0300). For the Forest Service's Web site on national grasslands and wildlife, go to www.fs.fed.us/r2/nebraska/gpng/;
* Predator Project, P.O. Box 6733, Bozeman, MT 59771 (406/587-3389);
* National Wildlife Federation, 2260 Baseline Road, Suite 100, Boulder, CO 80302 (303/786-8001);
* Bill Van Pelt, Arizona Game and Fish Department, 2221 W. Greenway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85023-4312 (602/942-3000).