Small animals cause big problems for farmers

CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle
A population explosion for prairie dogs has intensified what is a constant struggle for Curry County farmers and ranchers.

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ Staff Writer

Uninvited guests are wreaking havoc on Wesley Grau’s land.

True, prairie dogs inhabited the grasslands of North America long before Grau began farming and ranching in Grady. Nonetheless, Grau said, the rodents are irksome, and he wishes them gone.

“I fight them constantly,” said Grau, who prefers to keep his population control methods secret.

“They are similar to big rats.”

In the past seven years, Grau has spent roughly $25,000 trying to curb the prairie dog population on his land. The wily animals have decimated entire acres of grazing land for his cattle. His horses have broken legs in prairie dog holes on numerous occasions, and rattlesnakes are prone to nesting in the underground webs of the dogs.

Disdain for prairie dogs has always been common among eastern New Mexico farmers and ranchers. But frustration with the creatures has renewed and intensified. Grau and others allege the prairie dog population has exploded in the last few years.

“It is getting worse all the time,” said Gary Gibbs, who manages a ranch north of Clovis.

The actual number of prairie dogs in the region and the state is difficult to determine, according to state officials.

Two separate species reside in New Mexico, Gunnison’s and black-tailed prairie dogs, according to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. In 2004, the Gunnison’s species was petitioned for inclusion on the federal threatened species list, but the proposal was dropped, said Dan Williams, a public information officer with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

Prairie dogs are not considered game and not managed by the department, although they are studied and loosely monitored by the department’s conservation services division, Williams said.

Studies show prairie dogs have been ousted from at least 98 percent of their historic habitat, and hunting the animals is a pastime for many in the state, Williams said.

“People use prairie dogs for target practice,” he said.

In Clovis, there are a number of prairie dog hot-spots, primarily Ned Houk Park, Clovis City Manager Joe Thomas said. Yet, Thomas could not definitively concur that the prairie dog population has increased, only that it varies from season to season.

Sprawling colonies cover miles of terrain in and around Ned Houk.

Prairie dogs race across the park plains, and have become accustomed to cars. Generally, they duck into their holes only when humans exit their vehicles, their sandy hides blending artfully with the desert landscape.
“They are a problem, quite frankly, in the city and outside the city limits,” Thomas said.

“The increase in population is partly due to the drought,” he said. “They are moving around to forage and find water.”

Undisturbed prairie dog colonies can house thousands of residents and extend for miles in all directions, according to a National Geographic Web study. The robust rodents were named for the loud, dog-like barks they exert to communicate.

Colonies fraction into smaller coteries, with most containing a single breeding male.

One researcher, Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University, has documented more than 100 prairie dog calls, according to The animals elicit a distinct call for different predators, warning fellow colony mates of danger using chirps akin to adjectives — the dogs can even communicate the color shirt a human wears, Slobodchikoff maintains.

Despite complaints about the dogs, Clovis city officials approach the problem conservatively.

“Although prairie dogs are not endangered, species in cohabitation with them are — the black-footed ferret and burrowing owl.

“So you can’t undertake a real vigorous program without doing a lot of advance work to ensure you are not impacting the owl and ferret population,” Thomas said.

Protecting prairie dogs is a passion of Albuquerque resident Yvonne Bourdeaux. She manages Prairie Dog Pals, an organization that relocates threatened prairie dogs and educates the public about the animals.

According to Bourdeaux, a wet spring last year slightly bumped up the population of prairie dogs in the state. But nature, she said, will swiftly balance their numbers. And humans should refrain from clumsy intrusions in the process.

A reduction in the population of prairie dog predators, such as coyotes and wolves, has also tipped up their population. As prairie dog habitats are encroached, humans may notice their presence more, Bourdeaux said.

But those in the cattle industry and prairie dogs can co-exist peacefully, Bourdeaux argues. She said rotating grazing land and allowing cattle to roam in larger plots of land would mitigate competition for food among the two species.

“No one is ambivalent about prairie dogs. They either love them or loathe them,” Bordeaux said.

“But I am an advocate for the planet. When you take something out of an ecosystem, you risk losing so much.

“Prairie dogs are everyone’s lunch. Without them,” she said, “so many other species would suffer.”