What New York needs is a few million prairie dogs
Everybody but me is celebrating Lewis and Clark’s achievements, but I’m too peeved at William.
Among other feats, those two travelers from Virginia named about 1,528 places, plants and animals. Captain Lewis, who studied science especially for the trip, correctly named one of the creatures they encountered a "barking squirrel." William Clark changed the name to "prairie dog."
The misnomer, I think, causes folks who don’t know the animal’s habits to think it’s as cute and cuddly as the family poodle. So I blame Clark for the latest ugly battle between folks who live in the West, and those who love it from afar.
The prairie dog has become an environmental pinup, the new baby seal, but it belongs to the order Rodentia, which includes squirrels, rats, gophers, mice, beaver and porcupines. My ranching neighbors call them "prairie rats," a more accurate description than Clark’s.
Finally, the very first serious scientific study of prairie dogs has confirmed what ranchers have been saying for years: They eat or destroy more grass than cows or bison. Those pastures aren’t overgrazed, they’re over-gnawed.
Scientists from South Dakota State University’s West River Agriculture Center worked with Sinte Gleska University collecting vegetation from three sites in 2002-3. They demonstrated that prairie dogs remove three-fourths of the forage from prairie dog towns in cattle pastures; livestock get only one-fourth.
"Prairie dogs compete with cattle for pasture and can significantly reduce the amount of available forage," says Pat Johnson, professor of animal and range sciences. Grass on a prairie dog town is less accessible and less desirable to cattle — and wildlife — than forage on similar sites without prairie dog towns. The rodents also clip vegetation short so they can spot predators. In wet years, they cut more than they eat.
Moreover, says Johnson, heavy grazing discourages prairie dogs. Folks who howl about overgrazing in the West cast cattle as the culprits. But those ranchers may actually be using the most environmentally correct method of getting rid of the rodents without harming other species.
Prairie dogs don’t stay inside the fences of national parks where they are protected, so South Dakota ranchers are suing the state, asking it to follow its own laws and control prairie dogs that leave public lands for private. Natural predators — coyotes, hawks, eagles, rattlesnakes — are too few to control populations. Some ranchers, desperate after years of drought, are spending more than $200 a day in labor, fuel, and time to poison prairie dogs before they — literally — eat us out of our home ranges. It’s time to replace emotional wrangling with facts.
Lack of information affects many disagreements about Western land. In 1989, I wrote an article for Life magazine, and referred to "prairie dog towns," those colonies of thousands of prairie dogs covering hundreds of acres. The editor called me to say that, in 30 years of editing, he’d never heard of prairie dog towns. "Are you trying to tell me that prairie dogs live in little metropolises?"
Yup, I said. "If I used that term," he said, "I’d be the laughingstock of New York." Well, said I, if you don’t use it, I’ll be the laughingstock of South Dakota. Still, he edited my essay to fit his preconceived notions. Most writers could relate similar anecdotes over the years.
The experts on a particular place are the folks who live there. Sure, some of them are pigheaded, chew tobacco and haven’t been to college. But they probably know more about their home ground than someone who lives elsewhere.
After finding prairie dogs on more than 400,000 acres in South Dakota, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000 said the blacktailed prairie dog warranted listing as a threatened species. Figuring 30 to the acre, that means South Dakota has 12 million, and, in this age of the Big Scary Virus, let’s not forget that these rodents harbor fleas which may carry bubonic plague.
William Clark was a tourist who made good maps, but he didn’t live with prairie dogs, so he didn’t have enough information to choose a good name. That’s the problem: Folks who don’t live on the Plains need a chance to learn from observation. In the spirit of generosity for which Westerners are justly famous, we Dakota ranchers would be proud to help our city neighbors make informed decisions about how best to manage the critters. I hear coyotes have moved to Los Angeles and New York City, so ecological education is well begun.
Now let’s establish prairie dog colonies — a couple of million rats apiece — in the green parks in every city in the country, starting with Central Park. Then we can negotiate.