Prairie dogs tunnel their way to a military stalemate

 

HELENA, Mont. - The Montana Army National Guard has stood ready when called upon to fight any foe. Then it met the prairie dog. The rodents, known for their intricate tunneling, have expanded their stronghold here at Fort Harrison, threatening underground power lines and communications systems.

The guard would like to take action, but it's been stymied by controversy: Some groups want to save the animals and some want to kill them. Base exterminators used to employ phosgene gas, which was used in trench warfare during World War I. But during the last gas attack on prairie dogs in 1993, workers complained of an obnoxious smell leaking into nearby buildings, says base environmental officer John Wheeler. That ruled out future use of the gas.

A more recent plan proposed poisoning the two-pound rodents with oats laced with zinc phosphide. But before that got off the ground, conservationists came to the defense of the colony. To members of the Audubon Society's Last Chance Gulch chapter, the fort's prairie dog town is one of the best places in the area to watch wildlife.

The short grasses and weeds of prairie dog towns attract many birds, mammals, insects and reptiles, says Marvel Weggenman, a local conservationist. Burrowing owls, mountain plovers, ferruginous hawks, black-footed ferrets and foxes are just a few of the animals that depend on the ecosystem.

Biologists estimate that 99 percent of the prairie dog's range has been plowed under or poisoned. As the animals have disappeared from the Western landscape, so has other wildlife (HCN, 11/11/96).

Trying to avoid a fight with environmentalists, base commander Maj. Gen. John E. Prendergast opted to pay $10,000 to hire a prairie dog vacuum truck to suck the animals live out of the burrows. That annoyed some base employees, who said the live trapping was a waste of tax dollars.

The major general's most recent solution: trapping the animals with volunteer help and moving them to another site on the base. Said Prendergast, "The proposed management of the prairie dogs will be a win-win situation."

Mark Matthews writes in Missoula, Montana.

You can ...

* Write John Wheeler, Department of Military Affairs, P.O. Box 4789, Helena, MT 59604-4789, or call 406/444-0708.

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