Solving The Age-Old Prairie Dog Problem In An Era Of Political Gridlock

Dec 3, 2018

The sun is coming up lavender and peach as we drive out onto Wyoming's eastern plains. Defenders of Wildlife's Chamois Anderson is taking me out in search of prairie dogs.

"Look at this," she says, pointing at the sunrise, "Isn't this beautiful?"

It's the entrance into the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, nearly 550,000 acres of little-known public lands. Back in 2012, Anderson helped set aside 18,000 acres of this prairie to establish a protected population of prairie dogs. Anderson says they're what's called a keystone species.

"Their burrows provide homes for swift fox, for mountain plover, burrowing owls," she explains. "Without the prairie dog, then we start to see a lot of other native wildlife species go downhill."

Like the black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered animals in North America. Their main food is prairie dogs, and Anderson says, Thunder Basin is one of the last large swaths of habitat for them.

"The Thunder Basin is one of the key sites to be able to down list the ferret on the Endangered Species list. If we don't have ferrets here on the Thunder Basin in the future, then it's going to be really difficult to recover the black-footed ferret," Anderson says.

Defenders of Wildlife's Chamois Anderson points out the weeds and spiderwebs filling a prairie dog hole.
Credit Melodie Edwards

But when we arrive at the prairie dogs' protected area, all the burrows are empty.

"Yeah, normally you'd hear lots of chirps. You'd also hear hawks above. And it's unusually quiet out here," Anderson says. She stands and listens for a long moment. "Like, very."

Last year, a plague wiped all the prairie dogs in this area. And Anderson says her group didn't agree with local ranchers about how to manage the disease.

For years, Wyoming and other Western states have successfully solved controversial problems related to wildlife and forests by getting people on all sides of an issue to come together to hash out solutions, so when the prairie dog population disappeared, yet another collaborative in a string of them was assembled to figure out how to manage prairie dogs on this landscape.

Rancher Ty Checketts' ranch sits in the middle of the prairie dog protection zone and is a member of the new collaborative. When the prairie dog population exploded, he couldn't keep them inside their boundary and they encroached onto the land he leases from the Forest Service.

"Ty Checketts doesn't get scared much but I was scared," he says. "I was scared that I'd have enough feed to feed my cows and I was scared I'd have enough money to pay my bills."

Prairie dogs ate all his grass before his cows could. But he says, it's not only that.

"Biggest thing is, they're a threat to our lives," he says. "I've seen two of my kids have horses go down on them and neighbors that have been over to help me, horses go down on them simply having a horse step in a prairie dog hole."

He says attending these meetings is costly for him, but he's committed.

"I think it's really a blessing to live in a country where we can sit down and look at somebody eye to eye that we disagree with and try to work out a solution. I mean, that's how our governments work. We're not a dictatorship," Checketts says.

But to both Checketts and Anderson, the way the meetings were handled last time kind of felt like a dictatorship. The Forest Service had a rule that only government representatives could speak at them, not stakeholders like landowners or wildlife groups. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge and they don't have that rule. Department of Ag's Chris Wichmann says, so far, this new round of talks has been pretty productive.

"We've already through four meetings now have agreed to several things. Everybody. Not just one side, landowners, or the other," says Wichmann.

Wichmann says wildlife groups brought one of the ideas to the table. They proposed moving the prairie dog protection zone so natural barriers like mountains and rivers can control their spread instead of paying people to manage man-made barriers.

"For them to show that on their own with their own maps to that group shows that this collaborative here is working because it shows that they're engaged."

Defenders of Wildlife Chamois Anderson says, she's hopeful this new collaborative will succeed, but she says there could be more support from the state's congressional delegation.

"We know the ranchers are getting the ear of our delegations, particularly Representative Liz Cheney, and so we've also been attempting to have similar meetings with her, although I've only been able to meet with her staffers," says Anderson.

Jessica Western is the Director of the Collaboration Program in Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming's Ruckelshaus Institute and worked on the last prairie dog collaboration.

"Collaboration, which means to co-labor, to work together, it is so incredibly dependent on building relationships," says Western. She says there's a reason for the lack of compromise by lawmakers in Washington DC.

"They don't spend enough time together," she explains. "Their kids don't go to the same schools. They're not neighbors, they're not living in the same town."

She's encouraged that Thunder Basin ranchers are inviting wildlife activists out for campouts and BBQ's. She says it would help if more lawmakers got involved in collaborations in their districts and support them in other ways too.

"Something for example that they have in Colorado that I would dearly love to see in Wyoming is a pool of money from the state that enables people to engage in the collaborative process. Because it takes time, it takes money," says Western.

The Forest Service has given the prairie dog collaborative until the end of the year to come up with its recommendations. After that, they'll begin the NEPA Process (National Environmental Policy Act) to move forward. The group has only one more meeting before then.