Do prairie dogs steal grass?

 

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

Over the past century, conventional wisdom has said prairie dogs compete with cattle for grass and dig holes that can break the legs of unwitting livestock.

Maybe stampeding cattle injured themselves during long cattle drives of the 1880s, but not many ranchers say it happens these days. "That's pretty far-fetched," says Jim Peterson of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

As for the competition for grass, there's enough to go around, says biologist Craig Knowles.

"When ranchers say prairie dogs create an economic hardship, I can guarantee that it is trivial," he says. "There are 66,000 acres in Montana occupied by prairie dogs, out of 55 million acres of grassland (including 20 million acres of cropland). Those 66,000 acres represent one range unit on BLM land that would allow for 300 to 500 cattle. We have more than 1 million head of cattle in Montana. Sure, there may be one or two people with disproportionate numbers of dogs compared to others, but ..."

Even when there is direct competition, herbivores don't suffer, he adds. "Fort Belknap (Indian Reservation in Montana) has grazed 350 bison and their calves year-long on 10,000 acres since 1976, with no supplementary feed. That's triple the recommended stocking rate.

"Within the bison commons are 1,000 acres of prairie dog towns. Bison are living and reproducing there just fine. Their calves show normal weights."

Tim Byer, a district manager for the Thunder Basin National Grassland in eastern Wyoming, says, "We don't need to run cattle off the land because of prairie dogs. (Prairie dogs) provide fresher, greener, healthier vegetation, so long as they don't take up the whole pasture."

Still, it's always been a hard sell to ranchers. Says Wyoming rancher Jim Darling: "Contrary to what the do-gooders say, I don't see any increase in the amount of forage (at prairie dog towns). All I see is bare ground and erosion."

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