Prairie Dogs: Poison or shooting?

The Washington Post has an article titled, A Fresh Battle In South Dakota’s Prairie Dog War”, which details the fight between ranchers in the State who want to reduce the prairie dog population on public lands where they have grazing rights and environmentalists who don’t. The environmentalist’s argument key in on the recovery plans of black-footed ferrets which are beginning to come back from near extinction and which rely almost exclusively on prairie dogs for their own survival.

WALL, S.D. — Here on the sun-parched prairie, where rain seems as rare as gold dust, the fight over federal grassland is unending, pitting the backers of the crowd-pleasing prairie dog against the supporters of the humble cow. This week, the Bush administration could open the door to poisoning more of the furry rodents in order to help the cattle.

Personally, I have never been in favour of poisoning as a control method. It is just too non-selective. Even as a kid in southern Saskatchewan I hated it when our neighbour poisoned the gopher population around our farm. I never had any problem spending the summer out  in our pasture shooting gophers – hell, I figured that keeping their numbers in control was one of my duties. But poison never seemed right. To impersonal. I don’t think that the term crossed my mind back in those days, but in essence it accorded them no respect. It is also totally non-selective.

It is also a bit difficult for me to generate a lot of sympathy for ranchers who are lobbying to have prairie dogs poisoned on federal lands simply because they have been given the privilege of holding grazing leases. It might be different if they were paying top dollar to run their cattle on those lands, but the 2007 rates are $1.35 per Animal Unit Month (AUM) which is a reduction from the 2006 rate of $1.56 per AUM.

It also seems strange to me that while the  US Forest Service may decide to poison prairie dogs on federal land, hunting them on those same lands is closed from March 1st through June 15th, which would be the most opportune time to use hunting as a control measure. Go figure.

The past number of years has seen a lot of interest in prairie dog shooting trips. Doing a quick google search I see that there is the odd South Dakota rancher that has picked up on this as a way to pick up some secondary income. Although not as efficient as a poisoning program it seems to me a better alternative for the government agencies to promote. 

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but I suspect that poisoned oats will eventually be used. The ranching community is a well organized lobby everywhere, with political influence well beyond their economic value.

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