SD GF&P partners with landowners to manage prairie dogs
October 16, 2013
Wildlife sightings are a daily occurrence for Black Hills rancher, Travis Bies.
"Out here we see mule deer, whitetails, prairie dogs, birds – seeing wildlife on the ranch is a sign that we're managing our resources correctly, not only for our livestock, but also for the wildlife," Bies said.
A third-generation commercial cow/calf producer, Bies believes wildlife play an integral role in his ranch's ecosystem. So, when it comes to prairie dog management, he works closely with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (GF&P) to responsibly control the 15 prairie dog towns which reside throughout the 24,000-acres of rangeland he manages.
"I don't think prairie dogs should be eliminated, but they do need to be controlled because they create a lot of erosion issues and many invasive species and noxious weeds thrive on prairie dog towns," Bies said. "I think it's the rancher's obligation to provide habitat for wildlife and controlling prairie dog towns is part of responsible grassland management."
South Dakota GF&P would agree with Bies, said Mike Kintigh, GF&P Regional Supervisor for Region 1.
"Prairie dogs have value in South Dakota's ecosystem, but they are so prolific, that they can have a negative impact on private lands. According to state law, prairie dogs are considered pests" Kintigh said, of the state law which mandates that SD GF&P manage prairie dogs that move from public lands onto adjacent private lands.
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Since 2006, SD GF&P has partnered with the SD Dept. of Agriculture, and together the departments have invested more than $1.3 million on prairie dog control on more than 114,000 acres of private land.
To control prairie dogs on his land, Bies invests about $2,500 each year. This is in addition to the free prairie dog control GF&P provides for the towns on his land which border public lands.
"Landowners invest a lot out of their own pockets to manage prairie dog populations each year. I appreciate that Game, Fish & Parks steps in when the prairie dogs come onto my land from public lands. This is a valuable tool in grassland management," Bies said. "It's their way of being good neighbors."
GF&P controls encroaching prairie dogs up to one mile from the public land boundary. In the past, GF&P controlled prairie dogs up to 3 miles away, however, recent budgetary constraints decreased the amount of available funding. "This has been a cooperative effort between the two agencies (SDGFP and SDDA). We both contribute funding, and the GF&P does the boots-on-the ground work for landowners that qualify. We hire private contractors who then implement the management practices," said Keith Fisk, Wildlife Damage Program Administrator for SD GF&P.
To qualify for the GF&P prairie dog management program, a private landowner contacts GF&P and then GF&P staff visits the prairie dog town, maps it and schedules a private contractor, like Russ Backus, to implement the control method.
Backus has been working with SD GF&P controlling prairie dogs for 10 years. He explains that even though the control method is humane and very effective, prairie dog populations are still difficult to control.
"There is a pecking order within the towns. When we set out poisoned oats, the males eat first, then the females, with the pups eating last. In high density towns, we will return the following year to find that the pups who survived have reproduced," said Backus, who learned the best control techniques while helping friends control prairie dogs on their ranches.
Backus goes on to explain the poison and control methods which are used, are approved by the federal government and are specifically designed to target prairie dogs.
Once GF&P determines that a town meets the state's qualifications, Backus uses GPS to map the town. He then visits the town when the natural food supply is lowest – during the months of August thru December. He first lays out piles of untreated oats to get the prairie dogs used to eating them. Then he comes back two to three days later with the Zinc Phosphide treated oats.
"This is a very fast and humane treatment with most prairie dogs dying in their holes," he said.
To ensure prairie dog populations are managed properly, populations are inventoried every two to four years by the SD GF&P, explains Mike Kintigh.
"If the numbers of prairie dogs in South Dakota ever got too low, landowners in our state would run the risk of intervention from the federal government. A few years ago a group tried to get prairie dogs listed as endangered species. When we learned of this, Game, Fish & Parks developed a monitoring protocol which estimates the acres of prairie dogs throughout the state to prove that prairie dogs in South Dakota are not in danger of becoming extinct," Kintigh said. "We now do this every two to four years as part of our prairie dog management plan."
To learn more about prairie dog management, or to report a complaint of encroachment of a prairie dog town please call the SDGFP at 605-773-5913. All requests need to be submitted by the August 15 deadline. F
-South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks