A Wyoming wonder

 

In 1999, we published a feature story that followed biologist Jonathan Proctor around the northern Great Plains as he tried to convince ranchers that prairie dogs are beneficial for their land. Proctor’s a tall guy, but his task was undoubtedly taller, if not colossally unrealistic. Affectionately termed “range rats” by some, prairie dogs are one of the most contentious species in the West – arguably on par with wolves – primarily because they eat grass ranchers would rather see disappear into the rumens of their cows. ESPN, for instance, encourages shooting prairie dogs for sport.

In 2009, though, after a decade-long effort from Proctor and nearly five years of government-led negotiations involving numerous proposed management alternatives, draft revisions, and sit-downs with private landowners, the U.S. Forest Service announced a new management plan that involved translocating – instead of killing – a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs from the edge of private ranch land to a core recovery area within northeast Wyoming’s Thunder Basin National Grassland.

And now, three months of fieldwork, 550 prairie dogs, and 192 acres of new habitat later, the move is mostly complete. It’s the first-ever prairie dog relocation project carried out by the Forest Service on a national grassland, and the first large-scale one performed on public land. No small feat in the Cowboy State. The primary motivation for the relocation is the highly endangered black-footed ferret, a species which depends on prairie dogs for over 90% of its diet, and which the Forest Service hopes to reintroduce to the newly established prairie dog colony as early as next fall.

When I heard about the project in July, I packed my bags, jumped in my truck, and headed for the prairie. Most of my early years as a wildlife biologist, after all, were spent mapping prairie dog colonies on the Great Plains, spotlighting for black-footed ferrets, and trying to better understand the complexity of an ecosystem inhabited by a keystone species like the prairie dog. True, the story held unique personal interest for me, but once I hit the road, the historical significance of what was happening on the ground in northeast Wyoming took center stage.

For nearly a century, the feds have actively poisoned prairie dogs and the state has maintained an open recreational shooting policy (in most places, permits aren’t required), classifying the rodents as “nongame.” Combine this with a history of sylvatic plague outbreaks and the black-tailed prairie dog now occupies less than two percent of its original range. It's a bold philosophical shift, then, for the Forest Service to not just publicly acknowledge the "vermin" as an integral player in the prairie landscape, but to also marshal a collaborative inter-agency plan to restore the species on a national grassland.

My trip exposed many sides to this groundbreaking effort, as I sat down with private landowners, endangered species biologists, hunters, and agency officials to discuss the project’s criticisms, merits, and implications. You can view photos from the field, read interview excerpts, and more in a forthcoming HCN magazine story.

In the meantime, let’s all reminisce about how fun it used to be to shoot prairie dogs, since on parts of Thunder Basin National Grassland, it’s now illegal. The Forest Service wants ecological balance.

Apologies, Seekers of the Red Mist.

Adam Petry is a High Country News intern.

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations to value, conserve, enhance, manage, and protect...
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • NORTH TUCSON FOOTHILLS
    11.63 acres of lush desert foothills on Tucson's near north side, secluded, secure, no HOA. 10 minute walk to Waldorf and Montessori schools, regional bike...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.