Craig Knowles, scientist caught in the middle

  • Brian Knowles helps move prairie dogs to a wildlife refuge

    Mark Matthews photo
  • Craig Knowles has transferred around 300 prairie dogs in past years

    Mark Matthews
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Stoic is the word that might best describe Montana biologist Craig Knowles. If he were a university professor, some students might pan him as boring. But the students who went on to become experts themselves might dedicate their first book to him.

Wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt and baseball cap pulled low, Knowles looks more like a rancher than a wildlife biologist. This can come in handy when talking conservation on the range. He says he's even learned how to speak "rancherese."

"I never try to convince a rancher that prairie dogs don't compete with cattle," he says. "I just tell them I assume prairie dogs eat everything, despite what (I know) the research says."

Knowles became interested in prairie dogs in 1973, while studying elk at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge's 1 million acres of sagebrush and short- and mid-length grassland are broken by ravines and draws leading down to the Missouri River. When the elk bedded down during the day, Knowles says, he started to wonder about the mountain plovers flying over prairie dog towns.

"I began to see the association of other species with the prairie dog towns," he says. Research projects followed, with Knowles becoming the point man for prairie dog conservation in Montana, even raising money to fund translocation efforts to repopulate towns devastated by plague.

In 1983, however, he was hired to kill prairie dogs. Officials at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation planned to eliminate all black-tailed prairie dogs from their lands. But first, they hired Knowles and his wife, Pam, to conduct a search for black-footed ferrets, the now-threatened species that eats prairie dogs.

"Pam and I would visit Delmar "Poncho" Bigby (director of Tribal Lands) and tell him about the ferruginous hawks and golden eagles and other animals we saw, and we explained their association with prairie dogs," Knowles recalls. "Indians believe eagles and hawks deliver prayers to heaven - he caught on pretty quick."

The poison project was abandoned. Today, the tribes on the reservation have one of the West's most vibrant intact prairie ecosystems, complete with bison and black-footed ferrets.

Yet, Knowles does not support the push to list the prairie dog as a threatened species. He says the move is politically motivated and premature.

"That petition has nothing to do with biology. The (conservation) groups got frustrated with the state and federal agencies that are reluctant to do anything better than treat the prairie dog as a pest."

Knowles' mapping of Montana's prairie dog towns has put the state about four years ahead of the curve in prairie dog conservation. The state also hired him to write a conservation strategy. Some measures, such as purchasing conservation easements at dog-town locations on private land, may prove controversial in the ranching community.

Others, such as managing public lands for 1 to 2 percent prairie dog habitat - rather than the 10 percent many conservationists favor - and allowing poisoning near agricultural areas, raise the hackles of prairie dog advocates.

Knowles, beset by both sides on the listing issue, says, "I've been to every dog town in Montana and have a good handle on the situation. We've lost towns the last 10 years, but the species is not threatened."

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