North Dakota ranchers deal with loss of grass from increased prairie dogs
September 27, 2016
Over a decade ago the U.S. Forest Service stated their intent to increase the number of prairie dogs on the Little Missouri National Grassland.
The objective required an effort as strenuous as expanding a herd of barn cats. Now ranchers inside the Little Missouri Grazing Association are dealing with the "success" of the project – and a lot less grass – as they attempt to protect their private lands from encroachment among a continuous backlog of tangled bureaucracy.
The Forest Service target goal – up to 9,000 acres of dog towns – has been reached, but no actions were included for overflow. Now landowners continue to wait on an environmental assessment expected sometime this fall or in early 2017 that will hopefully loosen bureaucratic strings and allow for increased control of the exploding rodent population.
Lola Hewson is the business manager for the Little Missouri Grazing Association, a group of approximately 100 landowners whose ranches include grazing permits on Forest Service within the national grasslands. The grazing association serves as the collective lessee of the federal land, then oversees allocation of AUMs on the grazing permits to its members.
Over the last 15 years, Hewson says many prairie dog towns within the association have more than doubled. The objective in itself is baffling to the ranchers – why anyone who claims to want to improve the land would let prairie dogs decimate it.
"If they're honest and look at the destruction they do to the ground, I can't imagine why," says rancher Rob Brooks of Rhame, North Dakota. He says he has two main concerns with expansion of prairie dogs acreage.
Recommended Stories For You
"First of all, they are wrecking the Forest Service ground as far as I'm concerned," he says. "Second, we have so much private ground intermingled here, they spread where they're not supposed to be."
A unique challenge landowners in the Little Missouri face is the checkerboard of federal land interspersed among private sections. Compared to other regions with large blocks of federal land, here most ranches encompass parcels of Forest Service. Even many pastures include both deeded and Forest Service acreage within the same fenceline.
Brooks says this means decisions by the Forest Service on any kind of management, from wildfire to prairie dogs, impact private ground that may not be part of a permit. Landowners are allowed to poison on private property. But rodents don't recognize geographical boundaries, and without equal control on the federal lands as well, it's like bailing water out of a boat with a hole in it.
It's a big issue, says Hewson. She notes the case of an association rancher who, for the past two years, has had a wheat field completely annihilated by encroaching prairie dogs from adjoining federal land.
"The Forest Service acknowledges this is a real problem," says Hewson, "but their only response is: 'We don't have our NEPA studies done yet, so we can't poison them yet.' But they've been working on the studies for the past 4-5 years. And while we wait on red tape, he's continuing to lose his wheat crop."
A review of the Forest Service grasslands projects website gives a quick indication of the oppressive process of action. An alphabet soup of acronyms describes the steps of research, analysis, statement, comments, decisions and appeals required before the Forest Service will move. Even if the feds become more active in controlling the populations on Forest Service ground, once the dog towns are out of control, the effort to eradicate them becomes exponential. And the landowner still has to pay for the increased effort on private land.
Hewson sums the process up. "When you are running on land administered by the Forest Service, you have to ask permission for everything. You cannot use common sense. You're not allowed to use common sense. You can request to use common sense, but then you are required to go through the steps to use that common sense."
Shannon Boehm is the district ranger for the Medora District of the Forest Service's Dakota Prairie Grasslands, and is responsible for management decisions on Forest Service land within the Little Missouri Grazing Association. Even Boehm admits he is overwhelmed by the layers of bureaucracy of the job.
"Any decision the Forest Service makes has to be within the confines of about 180 different laws that Congress has directed us to adhere to," says Boehm. "Additionally, our comment period is open to the entire nation and we are required to address comments from all parties – which include oil and gas interests, recreationalist, and conservations groups."
Boehm says the objectives of his department are first, to manage the prairie dog acreage within the bounds of up to 9,000 acres of prairie dogs – which he notes is just one percent of the 1 million acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, and second, to honor the USDA's (the umbrella agency to the Forest Service) policy to be a good neighbor. He says the department has taken a "programmatic, long-term" approach to managing the entire ecosystem of prairie dogs within the grassland, as opposed to a one-shot approach to each problem that comes up.
"Because we went programmatic with it, the analysis is taking a bit longer than what some of our ranchers would like," he says. However, he says he hopes the process they are going through will support a longer, more flexible management plan.
Once the environmental assessment is complete in a few months and a management plan decision is made, Boehm says the Forest Service will have "a suite of tools – both lethal and non-lethal – available to us to mitigate the prairie dog expansion." Non-lethal methods considered include grass barriers on the edges of fence lines and predatory decoys to influence the habits of prairie dogs.
Meanwhile, along with encroachment, the effects are being felt on the lessees in terms of decreased AUMS. According to Hewson, association grazing permits were cut by 20 percent in 2013, then another 20 percent in 2014 – each time because of prairie dog encroachment.
Hewson noted the decreased stocking numbers impact more than just ranchers' income.
"If you start cutting the amount of cattle that can be raised in an area, you're not only cutting the ranch families' incomes, you're cutting the economic possibilities of the area, and of the entire state. A few years ago, every part of Slope County is considered poverty level.
"Do we want this to come to people having to move out of Slope County because they can't make a living?"