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Know the West

In a prairie dog colony, the power dynamics of modern America

How do we care for the vulnerable?


John Horning is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the executive director of WildEarth Guardians.

There’s a place in the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where a small colony of prairie dogs survives between railroad tracks and the busiest road in town. It’s a fragile existence, and some of the animals perish when they venture onto the pavement. But somehow, they survive in this small fragment of wildness.

On most Saturdays, my 4-year-old twins and I ride our bikes to the spot and watch in fascination as the prairie dogs yip and chirp at our arrival. They disappear into their burrows when my exuberant guys approach too close and too quickly.

We practice sitting still, and the animals seem to be learning to respect this invisible safety zone. Eventually, the intrepid dogs get the courage to reappear and return our gaze as they perch on the edge of their burrows. I hope the boys are also learning a deeper lesson about vulnerability and trust that will serve them in their future relations with people, as well as with wildlife.

Across the American West from Montana to New Mexico, prairie dogs, which once numbered in the millions, are increasingly vulnerable — to plague, habitat fragmentation, poisons. And, worst of all, to the blood thirst of hunters, farmers and ranchers who use them as target practice.

Prairie dogs are regularly scorned as pests best for target practice, but actually have complex communication skills.
Larry Lamsa/Flickr
Though plague is the most severe threat to the species’ survival, ecologists argue that the dogs’ fragile existence underscores the importance of removing human threats. And now they have a new threat: Donald Trump Jr. The president’s son recently went to Montana to stump for Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, who’s running for the seat in Congress vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Donald Jr. joined Gianforte to shoot prairie dogs, and when asked about it, Gianforte said, “What can be more fun than to spend an afternoon shooting the little rodents?”  

I know Trump Jr. is a hunter. I’ve heard he is a conservationist. But shooting prairie dogs is not about hunting. Nor is it, for me, about Trump’s conservation ethic, though conservation ought to be part of the discussion, because of the vital role that prairie dogs play in healthy grasslands, and because of their vulnerability.

The senseless slaughter of prairie dogs is fundamentally about the powerful and the vulnerable, which I see as the defining narrative of the Trump administration. The budget President Trump initially proposed made drastic cuts to the most vulnerable Americans — eliminating funding for after-school programs for 2 million children in the poorest communities, cutting $6 billion that keeps millions of people from falling into homelessness, ending a program the helps people heat their homes, and slashing funding for Meals on Wheels, which provides meals for struggling seniors.

While the final budget changed, Trump’s original version remains a painful reflection of the administration’s values. A telling example of those values is that he would have eliminated the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal aid to those who can’t afford it. This would result in swelling our prison population — already the largest in the world. 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” He said this because he recognized that, in many ways, prisoners are the most vulnerable people in any society.  

We know who we truly are, as moral individuals, by the way we respond to weakness and power. It is easy to serve the powerful because they usually reward our service. Serving the weakest in our society offers less tangible rewards. How do we respond to the vulnerable? Do we ignore those who cannot speak for themselves, whose voices go unheard? 

After 30 years of study, Con Slobodchikoff, a professor at North Arizona University, discovered that prairie dogs have a complex communication system with all the elements of language, its sophistication surpassed perhaps only by cetaceans and primates. Despite their sophisticated language, prairie dogs cannot speak for themselves. That responsibility falls to those of us who believe it is our duty to represent the voiceless, whether they are prairie dogs or people. 

Ultimately, politics is a struggle between two ideas: the belief that the weak are meant to serve the powerful, and the belief that the powerful have a duty to serve the weak. At its best, America has always defended the weak, whether it was Franklin Roosevelt fighting the Nazis or Abraham Lincoln abolishing slavery. We now find ourselves at a moment when we must decide between these two ideas once again, and that decision is nothing less than a referendum on our character as a nation.