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Know the West

Prairie dogs get a cease-fire

  Prairie dog shooting means big business for many small towns across the Great Plains states. So when the U.S. Forest Service recently closed the 70,000-acre Conata Basin in South Dakota's Buffalo Gap National Grasslands to shooters, many prairie dog shooters and businesses across the plains grew wary.

Shooters "make up about 70 percent of my business," says Candy Kalal, owner of a motel in Zortman, Mont. "I couldn't survive without them." Kalal has good reason to worry. Like the basin, Zortman is located near two black-footed ferret reintroduction sites: the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge to the east and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation to the west. Ferrets, which live in prairie dog burrows and dine exclusively on their hosts, were the reason for the shooting ban at Conata Basin, where shooters logged 4,000 visits last year.

"We've had unbelievable success with the ferrets," says Buffalo Gap District Ranger Bill Perry, who administers the basin. "We're concerned that a dozen animals may now be living within the shooting areas."

In addition to ferrets, prairie dogs are prey to hawks, eagles and numerous other predators, and environmentalists praised the South Dakota closure. "That's a really big step for helping out the prairie dog," said Jonathan Proctor of the Predator Project in Bozeman, Mont. "That's the only protected area on any national grassland." Proctor and other environmentalists are pushing the government to protect the prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act. The animal has been eradicated from 99 percent of its historic range (HCN, 11/11/96).

* Mark Matthews