…prairie dogs have contributed to the loss of greater sage grouse habitat at the same time state and federal wildlife agencies are scrambling to restore the habitat and prevent the wild game bird from reaching the federal Endangered Species status.

Lauren Donovan

Bismarck Tribune

US Forest Service plans to reclaim land from prairie dogs

BISMARCK—A small critter in western North Dakota tips the controversy scale well above its three-pound fighting weight.

Cute as a bug’s ear with its chirruping, kissing-cousin ways on one hand, it’s a potent competitor to cattle grazers on the other. The black-tailed prairie dog is in the crosshairs once again, this time in a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to eradicate about one-third of its acreage and thousands of the animals where they are encroaching on private land across a designated boundary fence.

The proposed action could start within months and falls under the agency’s mission to be a good neighbor to ranchers whose property is tightly intermingled amongst the 1 million grassland acres, mostly in the Badlands country from Alexander in the northwest past Amidon to the south.

The agency has been working on the plan since 2015 and will soon pull the trigger, though not literally. Instead, starting possibly this fall, it proposes to use a rodenticide poison to kill colony populations on its boundaries one-quarter mile back, provided the private landowner agrees to do the same with his own money on his side of the fence. About 100 private landowners would be in the mix.

Shannon Boehm is chief ranger of the Medora District of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, gathered under the Dakota Prairie Grasslands umbrella for administration purposes.

This is not the agency’s first attempt to manage prairie dog encroachment.

“We made four attempts in the past 15 years, and it didn’t make a dent,” Boehm said. “We decided to come up with a plan to cover the entire Little Missouri National Grasslands and address the problem holistically.”

More than one-third of the 5,600 acres of prairie dog habitat and 66 distinct colonies would be affected under the plan. There are four distinct complexes of dog town colonies in the grasslands and Boehm said the eradication plan involves all four complexes to some degree. Two of the complexes are in the southern Medora District on Indian and Boyce creeks and two are in the McKenzie District to the north.

The idea is to initiate a multi-year plan, starting with poison. Once the prairie dogs are gone, the agency hopes a higher vegetative barrier can get established in the quarter-mile zone, discouraging colony growth back toward the private lands, Boehm said.

“We want to knock ’em back consistently so that the non-lethal (vegetative) measures have a chance to take,” Boehm said.

Small dogs, big problem

Bruce Bowman is a Rhame-area rancher and former president of the Little Missouri Grazing Association. The association manages livestock grazing activities on its region of the grasslands, issuing permits to ranchers to graze public lands either in pastures attached specifically to their headquarters or in shared pasture arrangements.

Bruce Bowman was among 44 people who sent an official comment to the Forest Service on the prairie dog plan.

As he sees it, while the prairie dogs may only occupy about .5 percent of the total grasslands, the damage where they do have colonies is hard to overstate.

“We see a destruction of the resource to the grass and to the waterways because of erosion and runoff,” Bruce Bowman said. “I’m not opposed to the prairie dogs, but to the destruction.”

In his comments, he points to the irony that prairie dogs have contributed to the loss of greater sage grouse habitat at the same time state and federal wildlife agencies are scrambling to restore the habitat and prevent the wild game bird from reaching the federal Endangered Species status.

Several association ranchers are at ground zero, so to speak, of prairie dog occupation. One is Larry Fischer, who lives down a gravel road out in the open country north of Rhame. Prairie dogs have established colonies on both his private and public grazing pastures, returning to old burrows even after being eradicated.

“I’ve had ’em in my wheat and alfalfa; I’ve had ’em all over. It’s been pretty crazy the last two years,” he said.

He and his wife, Loreen Fischer, set dozens of traps over the prairie dog holes to keep the animals out of their crops.

“We’re setting traps every day, no Sundays off. This is a job,” he said.

Loreen Fischer says even persistent gun hunting in the summer is of no discernable help.

“We can’t make a difference,” she said.

Larry Fischer said prairie dogs should be tolerated and ranchers like him don’t want to contribute to the extinction of a species.

“We just want common sense — don’t let them dominate and take cattle off the grass,” he said.

Drought, coupled with loss of range from prairie dogs, has already led to reductions of cow-calf pairs allowed in some grazing pastures, Larry Fischer said.

Lola Hewson, business manager for the grazing association, said the group wants to see the Forest Service follow up its eradication and stay on top of the problem, so the whole process doesn’t have to start all over again.

Perhaps one-third of the association’s 90 members are being encroached by prairie dogs, according to Hewson.

“Each and every member will be committed on their side of the fence,” she said.

In the bull’s eye

Further north, rancher Dick Bowman — well known for his thoroughbred racing horse rescue — squeezes into Bruce Bowman’s off-roader for a bouncing ride into the beautiful and remote country where he has federal grazing pastures in Boyce Creek drainage above the valley of the Little Missouri River.

Dick Bowman is a good example of what it’s like in the bullseye of the .5 percent of land occupied by prairie dogs. Of the 2,400 acres in his permitted public pastures, a full one-fourth is occupied by prairie dogs.

“I’m hit as hard as anybody. Absolutely nothing grows here,” he said, looking at a lunar-like area with hundreds of inverted craters and loose barren soil from burrowing and grass consumption. “If we grazed with cattle like this, the government would throw us out of here.”

Dick Bowman estimates that if the prairie dogs continue to expand their territory — which they do especially in response to drought — as much as half the grass production in the pastures will be gone in a decade.

“This could potentially put me out of business in five, maybe 10 years,” he said. “I’ve lived here my entire life, and this all started with one little dinky prairie dog town out on that flat and this is what’s happened after years of neglect. I feel sorry for the next generation; they’re really going to have a fight on their hands.”

Read the full article here


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Comments

  1. I’m not from that area so I really don’t know a lot about what’s going on but, are you telling me setting up with a blind and a 17 or even a 22 which are both capable of head shots from 200 yards doesn’t work? Or is it that access to such opportunity is not possible?
    Here in Texas some say we have a hog problem but the real problem is access for hunters that would love to have the meat. What may seem to be a problem for some is a God sent opportunity for others. God made these animals to multiply for a reason. Its not so much the thought of poison to curb the problem, but the thought of will this measure effect future blessings.

    1. You have a great point. The rodenticide will certainly be more problematic to the environment and other species than well-placed .22 rounds.

  2. As a varmint hunter I find it difficult to believe that an agency of the federal government would be so downright silly as to rush to introduce dangerous poisons into the environment when the problem could be solved by encouraging varmint hunters to help solve the problem with little cost to tax payers….. And a great deal of recreation for the hunters.

  3. If you think hunting in rural areas is a viable solution to this problem, you have not been around a huge infestation over time, even with poisoning added as a kicker. The only thing that seems to be a solution, although a temporary one, is when the plague thins out a colony. You folks need to get out of town on a more regular basis……….

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