When some ranchers use poison -- just like the old days

by Ted Williams

"Biocides" was Rachel Carson's term for pesticides that kill indiscriminately. They haven't been much talked about since the banning of DDT and relatives in the 1970s – until now.

As Pete Gober, who heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's effort to save the black-footed ferret, America's most endangered mammal, put it recently:  "The incredibly dumb things we did 40 years ago are coming full circle." Had I heard of a biocide called Rozol? I had not.

Rozol makes creatures that ingest it bleed from every orifice and stagger around for the week or two or three it takes them to die, attracting predators and scavengers.  Whatever eats the anticoagulant-laced victim dies, too.

Rozol was registered for black-tailed-prairie dog control in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming by George W. Bush's EPA and, in May 2009, by Barack Obama's EPA in the rest of the range -- Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

Now, this biocide is killing golden eagles, bald eagles, ferruginous hawks, owls, magpies, turkey vultures, badgers, swift foxes, coyotes, raccoons, red-winged blackbirds, wild turkeys, and almost certainly, ferrets.

Because Rozol-poisoned prairie dogs leave their burrows, people who apply the poison are legally required to return and bury carcasses. They don't and would find few carcassesif they did.  As one applicator told Gober, "You put it out and you go fishing."

Prairie dogs have been eliminated from 95 percent of their habitat, and where cattle aren't overstocked there's no evidence they compete with them for grass.  Moreover, prairie dogs benefit or sustain at least 150 vertebrate species including ferrets, which can't exist without them.

But Gober's agency isn't asking ranchers to stop killing prairie dogs, only to poison them with the more selective alternative, zinc phosphide.  It's cheaper and easier to use -- if you assume that applicators actually take the time to obey the law and bury Rozol-contaminated carcasses.

"We've hammered EPA with our concerns about Rozol and about permitting it without consulting us on endangered species impacts," said Gober.  "They just blow us off."

Pressure for expanded Rozol use is intense. Whipped to a froth of fear and loathing by the Farm Bureau and county commissions, property-rights zealots who hate all things federal save farm support are using Rozol to neutralize the Endangered Species Act and eliminate black-footed ferrets.

I found the best example in western Kansas where the Logan County Commission is exterminating ferrets and their food supply by inciting the public against prairie dogs and nuking ferret habitat with Rozol. In 2007, after a 50-year absence, ferrets were returned to Kansas because two brave and enlightened ranchers invited the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use their properties near Russell Springs as a release site.

For protecting prairie dogs and welcoming ferrets, Larry Haverfield and Gordon Barnhardt have become local pariahs. Most of their neighboring ranchers filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against them for allegedly creating a regional prairie-dog infestation.

Because Rozol is so deadly to all wildlife, the law requires that it be placed inside prairie dog holes.  Instead, the county commission's applicator showed up uninvited on the Haverfield ranch, tossing Rozol-laced bait around like confetti.  The state has ordered him to pay a $2,800 fine.

When I visited commission chair Carl Uhrich, he made it clear that he hates black-footed ferrets at least as much as prairie dogs.  "Ranchers," he told me, "don't like having an endangered species because they bring all the federal rules with them.  We sent the Fish and Wildlife Service a copy of our resolution, and they just ignored it.  I said, ‘Well, you can take your ferrets and go home then.'"

The resolution, legally meaningless, wrongly calls ferrets "not indigenous" and proclaims "that no person or agency shall bring into Logan County one or more black-footed ferret or any…endangered species."

The commission has been harassing Haverfield and Barnhardt with meritless court actions. And it is vainly attempting to enforce an unconstitutional, century-old Kansas statute that authorizes it to enter private property "infested" with prairie dogs, "exterminate" them, then send the bill to the landowner.

Late last summer I joined Haverfield and Ron Klataske, the director of Audubon of Kansas, in a ferret survey organized by the Fish and Wildlife Service.  I operated the spotlight while Haverfield drove.  A few ferrets were seen by other volunteers, none by us.

"The surrounding landscape has been saturated with Rozol," remarked Klataske.  "If any ferrets left the property, chances are they're dead."

From the perspective of the county commission, Farm Bureau and most of the ranching community, that's the whole idea.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes the Incite column for Audubon Magazine and lives in Massachusetts.

© High Country News