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Prairie dogs difficult issue for ranchers, others

Holly Jessen
for The Fence Post
A prairie dog family watches for danger in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado.
Photo by Vic Schendel, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Kersey, Colo., rancher Dale Jackson sees both sides of the prairie dog issue. On one hand, the animals support many others, such as burrowing owls, black footed ferrets, hawks and more.

“They’re kind of an essential part of Colorado, that’s for sure,” he said.

Jackson has also seen first-hand the damage prairie dogs can do on ranching and farming operations, such as where he raises beef cattle and a few horses and grows hay in northern Colorado. “It’s kind of like prisons,” he said. “You need them but you don’t want them in your backyard.”

Prairie dogs first moved onto his land three or four years ago. The population grew to the point where the prairie dogs were competing for forage in his pastureland and reducing his hay crop by a couple tons. “You have to control the numbers somehow,” he said.

Last winter he hired a company to handle the job. They counted 844 prairie dog mounds on his 45 acres of land and told him they’d be able to reduce the population by 90 percent. “There’s still too many of them but they’re reduced somewhat,” Jackson said.

In the panhandle of Nebraska, news of a Cheyenne County Commission meeting about the prairie dog problem there created a buzz of interest across the U.S., said Philip Sanders, a Cheyenne County commissioner. Since then he said it’s become a mess, with some wrongly accusing the commissioners of wanting to kill all the prairie dogs. Not true, he said, adding that he actually loves wildlife and enjoys watching prairie dogs.

On the other side of the coin are the hunters. “I’ve had calls from over 30 people around the country, and I’m talking the entire United States, that want to come to Cheyenne County to hunt prairie dogs,” he said. “We’re not trying to promote hunting prairie dogs we just need to help the taxpayers control their problem. That’s all we’re after.”

Sanders, a farmer from Potter, Neb., said in Cheyenne County, things are worst near the town of Lodgepole, Neb. A huge prairie dog town outside Lodgepole is getting bigger and starting to even invade the village. People are even finding prairie dogs in their garages. “They are out of control,” Sanders said. “And they need help.”

Cheyenne County contracts with Wildlife Services for just under $9,000 a year and asked representatives to the meeting to clear up a misunderstanding about whether the agency would be assisting with the prairie dog problem or not, Sanders said. According to Wildlife Services information provided at the meeting, prairie dogs caused more than $2.9 million in damage to 2,600 acres of land in Cheyenne County alone.

Tim Veenendaal, Nebraska Wildlife Services state director said there aren’t enough funds to pay for more personnel. Wildlife Services is a USDA program which works with private citizens, government agencies and others to resolve issues with wildlife, such as protecting livestock from predators. They respond to calls about a variety of wildlife-related issues, not just prairie dogs, he said.

In the end, Cheyenne County commissioners decided to continue its contract with Wildlife Services, although Sanders said one Wildlife Services employee shared with five counties just isn’t enough manpower to deal with the prairie dog problem there. “This thing continues to escalate and we’re just not getting enough help,” he said, adding that he’s concerned about the possible spread of plague to humans, as prairie dogs are susceptible to plague.

The problem isn’t limited to Cheyenne County. Although it was said at the meeting the significant populations of prairie dogs were in Cheyenne, Morrill and Scotts Bluff counties but not Kimball and Banner counties, Sanders said it’s getting worse there too. Although prairie dogs generally prefer pastureland, he was combining in Banner County and came upon a place where prairie dogs had built mounds in a wheat field. The creatures ate the straw, leaving the grain heads on the ground, ruining about two acres of crop.

CONTROL METHODS

Windsor, Colo., based Rocky Mountain Wildlife Services Inc. offers prairie dog and other nuisance wildlife control in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, said owner Brett Boddicker. The primary control method the company uses is aluminum phosphide, a poison tablet dropped down the burrows, because it’s the most economical. Other options are carbon monoxide exhaust or gas cartridges.

Prairie dogs are a bigger problem than, for example, deer or turkeys, because they don’t move through properties, they stick around, Boddicker said. They are also very tough and adaptable animals.

Prairie dog populations are exploding in some areas, said Bill Enderson, general manager of Underground Pest Control Systems LLC. The Fort Lupton, Colo., based company has sold its Rascal Eradicator, used to control burrowing animals, including prairie dogs, in 25 states. The machine generates carbon monoxide, which is piped down into burrows with hoses. “They go to sleep,” he said. “They don’t suffer at all.”

The system is inexpensive to operate, highly effective, humane and safe. “If you can run a lawn mower, you can run this,” he said.

He also believes it has advantages over poison control methods because carbon monoxide doesn’t leave any residue in the soil. He pointed to a North Dakota case where a rancher applied poison to control prairie dogs and it resulted in the death of eagles. In late April David Alan Meyer was was ordered to pay a total of $58,800 in restitution, $9,800 per eagle, and $50,000 fine, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice. ❖

— Jessen is a freelance writer living in Minnesota with her nurse husband and daughter. They recently settled down after more than three years living a travel lifestyle, thanks to her husband’s travel nurse job. She can be reached at hollyjessenmedia@gmail.com.


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