Environmentalists Plan To Monitor Ranchers Who Decry Prairie Dogs In National Grassland

Sep 13, 2018

The prairie dog is the main food source for the endangered black footed ferret.
Credit Norman M

At a legislative meeting in Laramie last week, ranchers called to abandon efforts to introduce the endangered black-footed ferret in Thunder Basin National Grasslands. The ferret’s need a healthy population of its primary food, the prairie dog, but ranchers say too many prairie dogs would compete with livestock for grasses. 

The environmental group Western Watersheds Project is worried ranchers will act on their frustrations and have written a letter to the U.S. Forest Service saying they will begin closely monitoring grazing practices in Thunder Basin to make sure ranchers aren’t undermining efforts to create an 18,000-acre habitat for the two struggling species. Recently, plague has reduced the number of prairie dogs in the area.

Western Watersheds Project Director Erik Molvar said the ranchers want to use poison to control prairie dog numbers.

“What’s going to happen when a swift fox eats that prairie dog that’s dying at the mouth of its burrow?” asked Molvar. “What’s going to happen when a ferruginous hawk swoops down and then carries it off and feeds it to his fledgling chicks? It’s a really bad idea to be spreading poisons all around public lands to kill off native wildlife.”

The federal government has admitted the black-footed ferret is unlikely to survive unless it can be released in Thunder Basin because of the large swath of ideal habitat there. Molvar said there are 100 species that rely on healthy prairie dog colonies, and some of those are also in danger of extinction.

“You know, if you lose the black-tailed prairie dogs, you’re not just losing one species of rodent. You’re losing an entire assemblage of rare grassland species that have been really struggling in North America,” said Molvar.

Collaborative efforts to bring back black-footed ferrets to Thunder Basin has been ongoing for years, but recently it’s grown frayed. Molvar said both state and federal agencies have whittled away at programs that have proven effective at growing prairie dog populations.