Outdoor writers and prairie dogs

  Dear HCN,

We recently became aware of a "Heard Around the West" article in your publication that addressed the upcoming Outdoor Writers of America Association conference in Sioux Falls (HCN, 3/1/99).

The Outdoor Writers of America Association did not plan the prairie dog shooting trip you mentioned in your article and the excursion does not take place during the conference. This trip was planned by the South Dakota Department of Tourism and is offered as one of 40 pre- and post-conference trips.

Communities such as Winner, S.D., rely heavily upon visiting sportsmen for their visitor industry. That is why the Department of Tourism promotes outdoor activities in these areas. In an era of depressed agricultural markets, sportsmen bring significant economic relief to small-town main streets. The location of many rural South Dakota communities keeps them isolated from the masses of visitors traveling to the Corn Palace, Wall Drug and Mount Rushmore.

While it is true that the black-tailed prairie dog is being reviewed for inclusion as a threatened species, this animal is in no immediate danger of extinction in South Dakota.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 50 percent of the nation's black-tailed prairie dog population lives in South Dakota. Under current statutory law in South Dakota, the prairie dog is listed as a legal pest and landowners may legally control prairie dog populations on their land.

Landowners, who suffer financially from expanding prairie dog towns and grazing competition with livestock, often choose poison as an effective means of eliminating prairie dog towns. Shooting, on the other hand, has not been proven to decimate a town. It simply keeps prairie dog towns in check and curtails their growth. In addition, it does not impact the environment in the same way as poisoning.

The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks is currently working with surrounding states to enact a progressive prairie dog conservation plan. Recreational shooting, which has less impact upon the prairie dog population and the environment, may or may not be a part of this plan. We are currently working with the state's ranchers and other landowners to discourage the use of poisons, so it seems logical that recreational shooting is a viable option which would help keep dog towns under control without complete destruction.

Another indication of our state's stable prairie dog population is the fact that South Dakota was chosen as a key reintroduction site for America's rarest mammal, the black-footed ferret. Ferrets rely almost solely on the prairie dog as a food source and their numbers are increasing in southwestern South Dakota. We are proud to be a part of that historic effort.

We certainly understand the concern with properly managing and protecting prairie dogs as a "key species' in our prairie ecosystem. The "dog" has been extirpated over approximately 97 percent of its historic range and the Great Plains is its last bastion for conservation. Our state is willing to accept responsibility for creating a management plan, even though the status of this critter is emotional and controversial - especially in South Dakota. We do, however, reserve the right to use management techniques that are in the best long-term interest of the prairie dog. And, yes, we have to consider the landowner's concerns for his or her private property, the tribal concerns for their lands and the multiple users of both state and federal public lands. Will it be easy to find and implement a suitable management plan? The answer is no. Recreational shooting on certain areas may be a part of that plan, and in certain situations it may be the most desirable method of management.

We do appreciate your interest in the Outdoor Writers Association of America and its upcoming conference. These writers are truly passionate about the outdoors and work very hard to share the wonders of nature with their readers. We look forward to hosting them and hope that they will return home with many fond memories of our state.

Patricia Van Gerpen and John Cooper

Pierre, South Dakota

Patricia Van Gerpen works for the South Dakota Department of Tourism; John Cooper works for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

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