Varmint hunters sidelined in Wyoming

The Forest Service takes a stand for prairie dogs


Mary Peterson doesn't regard the black-tailed prairie dog as a warm, fuzzy creature. The supervisor of southern Wyoming's Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest knows that many ranchers in the Great Plains look upon the animal as a pest that eats grass intended for cows. But she also recognizes that prairie dog burrows shelter numerous other critters, and many of those squatters like to eat the chubby rodents.

This spring, Peterson curtailed the sport shooting of prairie dogs at Thunder Basin National Grassland in eastern Wyoming; the area contains one of only seven large black-tailed prairie dog complexes remaining in North America.

"The Forest Service is responsible for trying to maintain biodiversity on its public lands, and I want to fulfill my obligation to preserve all special habitats," Peterson says.

The move, which bans shooting on 72,500 acres of grassland, is one of a growing number of actions being taken on behalf of the beleaguered prairie dog. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified the rodent as a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act, but the agency says it doesn't have the funding or resources to manage it right now. Consequently, 11 Western states are scrambling to come up with their own conservation plans to sidestep more sweeping ESA restrictions (HCN, 8/16/99: Standing up for the underdog)

The Forest Service, led by Peterson, has been the most proactive federal agency. While supervisor of Nebraska National Forest, Peterson in 1999 shut down shooting on a portion of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands on the western border of Nebraska and South Dakota. The goal was to protect the extremely rare black-footed ferret, which lives in prairie dog burrows and dines almost exclusively on prairie dogs. Biologists released ferrets at Buffalo Gap in 1995, and today about 200 inhabit the area.

Ferrets are also destined for Thunder Basin, which has even more prairie dogs. For Peterson, the shooting ban was a logical step: She wants to make sure there are still plenty of prairie dogs around when federal biologists release the foot-long, weasel-like predators, most likely in 2002. She says she was concerned by the large number of shooters who have been eyeing Thunder Basin in the wake of restrictions in Colorado and South Dakota.

"The number of requests for information about shooting at Thunder Basin have increased exponentially since January," she says.

But barring sharpshooters can be a complicated affair. For one, it riles people up. "I don't see how that (Thunder Basin closure) is going to do anything," says Chuck Cornett, editor of Prairie Dog Digest, a publication dedicated to prairie dog hunting. "There are plenty of prairie dogs there."

Shooting bans also highlight jurisdictional problems. Individual states manage wildlife, while the federal agencies control much of the land on which those animals exist. Peterson had to find a way of prohibiting the killing of prairie dogs without stepping on the toes of Wyoming bureaucrats.

"They were okay with wording that prohibited the discharge of firearms in the area as long as it didn't affect turkey or antelope hunting seasons," she says. The ban puts prairie dogs off-limits from May through September.

Environmentalists applaud Peterson's action, but note that other federal and state agencies have moved slower than the Forest Service. In Montana, the Bureau of Land Management has banned shooting on 15 prairie dog towns, all less than 100 acres in size, in south Phillips County. But that's not enough, says Jonathan Proctor of the Bozeman, Mont.-based Predator Conservation Alliance.

"For ferret reintroduction to be successful, the BLM must protect all the prairie dog towns within their own designated ferret recovery area. Not just protect them from shooting, but also translocate animals to jump-start new towns," he says.

But the BLM says it's waiting for the state to finish its conservation plan before taking action. The state is closing in on its final prairie dog plan, and new shooting restrictions will likely be part of it, says Dennis Flath, Montana's nongame species coordinator. The state also plans to translocate prairie dogs, "but only to areas where it lived before," he says.

Proctor says Montana's preparations shouldn't take the BLM off the hook this year. "The BLM and state have been trying to pass the buck to each other for the last six years," he says.

Shooters are also tiring of the politics surrounding the creature. Cornett, a resident of Fresno, Calif., organizes an annual prairie dog shoot for a dozen writers and 65 shooters. This July, his party will travel to Montana's Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, which straddles Blaine and Phillips counties. Prairie dog shooters are still welcomed there.


Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.


  • Jon Silvius, Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, 307/745-2408;
  • Predator Conservation Alliance, 406/587-3389.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Mark Matthews

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