Group protects prairie dogs, called nuisance by others

Staff and wire reports

A group of environmentalists, biologists and landowners in the Texas Panhandle hopes to keep the Texas black-tailed prairie dog off the endangered species list by conserving more than 293,000 acres of grassland habitat for the animals by 2011.

But in Curry County, at least two cattle growers say they think of the burrowing rodent in a more traditional way — as a danged nuisance.

The squirrel-like animals live on short-grass prairie land among large mounds of soil. They’re called prairie dogs because of the barking sounds they make.

“I was raised to always fight the prairie dog, but I’ve learned they can be an asset to a ranch, either through nature tourism or limited recreational hunting,” said L. H. Webb, a member of the Texas Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Working Group, who owns and operates an 11,000-acre ranch in the eastern Panhandle.

“We don’t have to try to eradicate them to win on this deal, but that’s not the traditional ranch way of thinking,” he said.
In 1905, early explorer Vernon Bailey estimated there were 800 million prairie dogs covering 57 million acres in Texas. Since then, prairie dog numbers have shrunk to the tens of thousand because of development, disease and eradication methods, such as poisoning and trapping.

The acreage the working group hopes to preserve represents about 1 percent of the habitat available to the prairie dogs in the late 1800s, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Preliminary estimates indicate there are currently 150,000 to 170,000 acres of occupied prairie dog habitat in Texas, with a final inventory completed this summer. The estimate is based on aerial photos and ground inspections.

“Regardless of the final decision on whether to list the prairie dog as threatened, the state of Texas and our partners in the working group are committed to implementing this management plan,” said Derrick Holdstock, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s black-tailed prairie dog program coordinator.

The animal’s plight has long been a controversial topic in the region, where the city of Lubbock has authorized the killing of thousands of them. The city blames prairie dog waste for excessive nitrate levels in groundwater, and their overgrazing for crop failures.

But Holdstock said studies show the rodents are important for healthy grassland ecosystems. Their burrows and surrounding low-cut vegetation provide habitat for other species, including western burrowing owls, mountain plovers, and the endangered black-footed ferret, which is currently extinct in Texas.

Studies also suggest prairie dogs may even benefit cattle ranching operations, he said.

When the animals graze on perennial grass, they keep it at an earlier growth with a higher nutrient content. When cattle eat that grass, they don’t have to eat as much to get nutrients they need, Holdstock said.

Ranchers also could use prairie dogs colonies to attract tourists or hunters. Limited recreational hunting of the rodents could help build an industry from the conservation effort, he said.

“There hasn’t been research that suggests you can hunt out a population,” Holdstock said.

If prairie dogs go on the endangered list, the government will limit how landowners can deal with them, Holdstock said. The Fish and Wildlife Service could prohibit landowners from killing prairie dogs or they could allow their killing only under certain circumstances, he said.

The 25-member conservation group, which includes representatives from the Texas Panhandle Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and the Texas Farm Bureau, is part of a multistate effort to restore prairie dogs.

Curry County Roads Supervisor Danny Davis, who also farms and ranches north of Ranchvale, said if it were left up to him the prairie dog would go the way of the dodo.

“I hate ’em,” Davis said Sunday. “They ruin the grass. Cattle can break legs in those holes and if you’re out riding a horse, the horse can trip and throw you and you can get killed.”

Of the theory that prairie dogs can improve grasslands, Davis said, “I ain’t buying it.”

“They kill the grass and if you kill them out, the grass comes back as weeds,” he said.

Tucumcari-area rancher Phil Bidegain, a past president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said prairie dogs level the grass around their burrows as a defense mechanism.

“Their defense is in what they can see, so they chop down everything around them so they can see the coyote or the hawk and other predators. It makes it hard to manage grassland,” he said.

Bidegain said he disagrees with the idea that the grass prairie dogs keep chewed down is better for cattle.

“It might be fresher, but it’s so danged short the c
attle can’t get to it,” he said.

But Bidegain said by keeping prairie dogs off the endangered species list, groups like the Texas Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Working Group are doing ranchers a favor. As long as prairie dogs are not on the list, ranchers can control them, he said.

“The agreement was that if they could preserve them they wouldn’t go on the endangered species list. But some radical environmental groups are going back on their word and want to put them on the list,” he said.

Other states with prairie dog preservation groups include Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.