One grassland grows prairie dogs

  • Black-footed ferret

    Wyoming Game and Fish Department
  • Burrowing owl

    Don Baccus photo
  • Mountain plover

    Wendy Shattil/Bob Rozinski photo
  • Swift fox

    Jim Brandenburg photo
 

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

The sage-dotted prairie of Thunder Basin National Grassland in eastern Wyoming is alive with wildlife. Coyotes skulk in the draws while antelope outrun approaching vehicles across the flats.

On slight knolls, ferruginous hawks and golden eagles are often seen at rest. In the overgrazed areas, mountain plovers scratch out sparse nests.

The district biologist on this federal grassland knows why many of the animals are here - because of the prairie dog. To protect them, Tim Byer has let their colonies expand beyond the limit mandated by the current grassland management plan.

"We grow prairie dogs at Thunder Basin," he says.

Byer grew up shooting prairie dogs for sport, but as he learned more about them during his college days, he laid his gun aside.

"I never considered it a pest to be disposed of," he says. "Everything is out there for a reason. The prairie dog is, at the least, a major prey base."

The current management objective for the 571,971-acre grassland calls for reducing prairie dog habitat to 4,000 acres, but Byer considers that a minimum, not a maximum. "As the prairie dog issues have increased, expansion seemed like the most prudent thing for us to do."

Today, prairie dog colonies cover 19,000 acres, up from 3,000 acres in 1972. The Rosecrans Complex, at about 5,000 acres, could be the next black-footed ferret reintroduction site, Byer says. He hopes that area will eventually expand to 10,000 acres to support a population of ferrets.

Such tolerance could eventually bring prairie dog acreage to 10 percent of the total grassland, the amount which conservationists seek.

It all depends which option officials choose for the new management plan.

Byer sometimes walks a thin line trying to appease both conservationists and cattle ranchers, some of whom have held grazing leases here since the grasslands were established in the 1930s.

Until this spring's moratorium on poisoning, he frequently killed off dog towns near private inholdings or at the borders of the grasslands. He was not pleased when that management tool was taken out of his hands.

"We don't want a single system here," he said. "We want prairie dogs on federal surfaces, but at the same time we have areas where we don't want prairie dogs." Besides areas set aside for grazing and coal mining, Byer wants to maintain sagebrush country for species like prairie sage grouse.

"Poisoning and shooting can be functional tools," he says. "I don't want to lose those tools. The levels of shooting we've seen may actually be helping prairie dogs. If you harvest a population, it responds by producing more young. We don't want to take more than 30 percent of a town through shooting, though, since that equals a town's reproductive rate.

"The poisoning program seems to have done the same. After poisoning, it only takes about two to three years for a population to recover." Byer adds, "I have no data to support that except what I've seen on the ground."

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