Plague shrinks prairie dog towns | TSLN.com

Plague shrinks prairie dog towns

Black-tailed Prairie Dog

The ranchers and the wildlife biologist seem to agree on one thing. The sylvatic plague has arrived in South Dakota and it has gotten rid of a lot of prairie dogs.

Whether they give the action a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down" varies.

While it first put a toe in the pond in S.D., arguably in 2004, then arrived in full force in about 2007, the plague had not traveled to the the eastern part of "West River" until this year.

Wildlife biologist Randy Grieber confirmed that the plague has now moved as far east as the Ft. Pierre National Grasslands.

Grieber, a U.S. Forest Service staffer in the Wall Ranger District said that plague has impacted the entire district. His office oversees a ferret reintroduction project in Conata Basin where they have allowed the black tailed prairie dog to populate uninhibited for about 15 years in an effort to provide a food source for the estimated 335 ferrets alive in 2007. Before the plague arrived, the basin was basically a 30,000 acre prairie dog town.

Grieber is thankful for efforts the Forest Service has taken to prevent a large percentage of the prairie dog population from dying from the plague. They have spent about $250,000 per year since 2007 to dust prairie dog holes on about 13,000 acres. The dust kills the fleas which are the carrier of the disease. "Basically anything that hasn't been dusted hasn't survived." He said. "The only reason we've still got about 10,000 acres of prairie dogs is because we've been dusting." Grieber said the agency believes the ferret number has dropped to about 45 due in part to the reduced number of prairie dog acres. While the density of prairie dogs can vary drastically, 12 per acre is the average on Conata Basin according to their figures, even though some acres might have 20 or more and some just a few. Extrapolating those numbers, each of the remaining ferrets has about 2,666 prairie dogs to feast on each year.

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The government agency is also perfecting a vaccine that would prevent an animal from contracting the plague. "We are in the testing phase right now. It's a large scale research project. We are one of the field research sites," Greiber said, adding that in South Dakota, testing is also being done at Wind Cave Park and and the Lower Brule reservation. Other research sites can be found west all the way to Utah and from Montana south to Arizona, where a number of different varieties of prairie dogs exist. Grieber it is a "great mystery" how the plague crossed the invisible "prairie dog line" between Wyoming and South Dakota that had existed for over 40 years.

Ranchers in the area who have seen their private grasslands as well as federal grazing lands decimated by the overgrazing that defines large colonies of prairie dogs, are not disappointed in the steady trek of the plague across prairie dog country.

Martha Whitcher who ranches with her husband Monty 12 miles east of Scenic, S.D., the place some might consider the "prairie dog capital of the world," said her family is some of the "last survivors" ranching in that community. In addition to grazing their own private property, they also hold leases on Forest Service land within the confines of the ferret reintroduction site.

"The plague was actually a blessing," she said, explaining that the overpopulation of prairie dogs was "going to put a lot of landowners out of business." Whitcher said she and her husband, along with other ranchers in the community had filed suit a few years back because the Forest Service was not acting as a good neighbor. While state law calls the prairie dog a pest and requires that they be controlled so as to prevent them from affecting neighbors, the U.S. Forest Service was not adhering to this state law, they believed.

During the "heyday" of the prairie dogs, they were not healthy, Whitcher said. "It was animal cruelty. When I'd ride across those towns, I'd see some with big patches of hair missing, they were starving to death, suffering, even eating their own young. I tried to point this out but nobody responded."

The overabundance of prairie dogs in the area had not only decimated grass but had caused copious amounts of topsoil to drift, Whitcher said. "We had asked Forest Service to clean out dams with the dirt that has silted in from prairie dog towns," she said, adding that so far the agency hasn't agreed to follow up.

While she is also frustrated and nervous about the presence of plague – she doesn't feel safe allowing her grandson to ride horseback with her on their own private property for fear of him catching the disease – she is thankful that the grass will now have a chance to grow.

Whitcher said that with the drop in prairie dog numbers, grass has returned successfully on their private land that adjoins Forest Service property but on the federal land itself, there has not been a full recovery.

When prairie dogs aren't managed, they populate quickly and when they don't have room to expand, the food source quickly runs out. "The prairie dog eats the root of the grass when the top is gone. That grass has been damaged pretty bad, so we don't have the abundance of grass that we used to have on the federal land."

"The plague in South Dakota is a perfect example of the government bureacrats and environmentalists causing a problem, then acting like the white knight who comes in with his sword and shield and tries to save the day. The reason South Dakota prairie dogs were healthy and had not contracted the plague is because there was an active poisoning program here. We'd poison them down, and the towns would grow back. A healthy prairie dog town is a growing prairie dog town – one that isn't overcrowded. Once the towns get overcrowded, disease sets in, whether it's the plague or something else – just like with almost any species," explained Whitcher

Another rancher who has seen prairie dog numbers dwindle due to plague agrees that it has been a blessing in disguise.

"If it hadn't been for that, we were done, ranching would have been over in this area," said Cole Lange who raises cattle near Oglala, S.D., in Shannon County. He leases some pasture on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Lange, who has ranched on the same operation for over 40 years has regularly budgeted for poisoning the rodent. "They are worse than fire or hail," he said. "They are constant, summer, fall, winter and spring, year after year. When you have a fire, then you recover the next year."

"I spent about $30,000 per year on a 500 cow operation," he said. "I don't know how much longer I could have stayed in business."

On the land he grazes, Lange still has about 500 acres of prairie dogs in several towns ranging from two to 200 acres. They will never be totally decimated, he believes.

Lange said some might think that losing opportunities for prairie dog hunters is a concern but he said any economic benefit to the community the hunters brought was miniscule compared to a rancher grazing cattle. Plus, he said, there are still prairie dogs, and hunting can continue. "They might actually have to just hunt now instead of sitting in the same spot in their campers and blowing the barrel out of five or six guns, but they can sure hunt if they want to."

Lange added that hunting alone was not a viable management method. "You couldn't have enough hunters in the United States to ever slow down the prairie dogs, we used to have them coming our ears, from Chicago and everywhere, and we still had to poison prairie dogs if we wanted any grass."