Forest Magazine Article: People Prairie
Ranchers say a threat to human existence roams the common and boundless pasture that is the Great Plains. To bolster their claim, they point to small mounds of earth poking up out of the prairie. On their haunches and perched on the mounds, black-tailed prairie dogs survey the surrounding grasslands-uncertain whether to conquer civilization or dash into their burrows.
At one time, more than 5 billion prairie dogs covered U.S. grasslands. Today their numbers equal 1 percent of that population. In 1999, the National Wildlife Federation petitioned for the black-tailed prairie dog to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Also that year, the U.S. Forest Service was revising its management plan for the national grasslands. The first thing the agency did was pool the 2.9 million acres of grasslands from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming into one plan. Although this may seem like vast acreage, it is a small fraction of whats left, at least in name, of the grasslands that Lewis and Clark observed. Most of the land fell victim to the plow, and the remaining pieces owned by the Forest Service are heavily grazed and remain open to oil and gas development.
Forest Service managers considered the National Wildlife Federations petition and realized they had to act and build up prairie dog numbers before the Endangered Species Act forced them to do so. But prairie dogs cause a great deal of ruckus simply because so many ranchers think the rodents steal federal grass from their cattle.
The Great Plains Management Plan generated 110,000 comments, more than any other plan in the history of the Forest Service. Most comments were in favor of more prairie dogs, less grazing and protection for wildlife habitat. Many people, though they may not know the difference between shortgrass and tallgrass prairie or how long it takes to drive from Bismark to Omaha, want these areas protected. Some people even asked the Forest Service to tear down the cattle fences so buffalo could roam free.
Ranchers bristled when the Forest Service proposed increasing the prairie dog population. Ranchers loathe the animals. Prairie dogs live in large towns, creating homes for burrowing owls and habitat for disappearing mountain plovers. They are also important prey for badgers and swift foxes and the main source of food for the disappearing ferruginous hawk. Without prairie dogs, the black-footed ferret cannot eat and recently went from disappearing to almost gone. A keystone species, the prairie dog is vital to habitat: when you take them off the grasslands, you dont have prairie anymore, you have cow pasture.
In the early 1980s, Dan Uresk, a Forest Service researcher, did a study to find out how much prairie dogs impinged on grazing. By comparing plots of land, he discovered plant production was 24 percent higher in areas grazed by prairie dogs than in areas grazed by cattle. On land where cattle and prairie dogs coexisted, plant production was 13 percent higher than when grazed by cattle only.
Prairie dogs clip the grass low so they can spot predators. The constant trimming keeps the plants in a vegetative state, meaning they never fully mature but stay young and green, increasing digestibility and nutrient levels. Researchers had some idea that this was the case because buffalo and cattle tend to prefer grazing on prairie dogs towns. Depending on grass productivity, direct competition between prairie dogs and cattle is about 4 percent to 7 percent. But try telling that to a rancher. When I presented this data at meetings, Ive had ranchers walk out on me, says Uresk. Ive even been threatened.
Ranchers find science unpersuasive because they know what they see, and what they see are burrows that cattle step in. Prairie dog towns are run through with holes. So many that the only way to estimate prairie dog numbers is to fly over the towns in a plane and count the burrows. Uresk, who grew up on a ranch and has lived his entire life on the plains, says he has never seen a cow step in a hole.
To counter the rodent menace, ranchers have responded with calls to the Department of Agricultures Wildlife Services program to control-poison-the prairie dogs. Its hard, however, to justify the economics. If you look at the cost incurred for poisoning, it doesnt add up, says Pat Melhop, the grasslands coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But in this case, the taxpayer is funding most of the poisoning.
And when it appeared the prairie dogs might be listed as endangered, ranchers answered with even more poisoning. After all, if the rodents are gone, theyre no longer endangered. This rodent has become so politicized that even the National Wildlife Federation took some heat for wading into the mess. They forced us to do what we should have been doing in the first place, says one Forest Service official. But it wasnt without a price: smacking the government with the velvet hammer raised hackles among the hook-and-bullet crowd in the conservation group.
There are two histories lurking on the Great Plains. For ranchers, history begins in the 1930s when the federal government purchased miles and miles of failed farms and ranches. These lands were later consolidated under the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1935 and then came under the management of the Soil Conservation Service. As a result, ranchers worked with the federal government to improve the land they could not afford to own and formed grazing associations to apply for federal grazing permits.
During the 1950s, the grasslands were shuffled over to the Forest Service. This led to a host of legal wars as the Forest Service tried to annex the newly acquired grasslands into nearby national forests to streamline supervision. It was an awkward fit: the national forests were managed for timber, multiple use and recreation; the grasslands bordering them were managed for ranchers and their grazing permits.
Environmentalists have their own sense of the past and believe ranchers fail to acknowledge a few bones in their historical closet. To the greens, history began at about the time Lewis and Clark showed up, when 70 million bison and 5 billion prairie dogs lived on the prairie. As one Forest Service official put it, If prairie dogs are so detrimental to grazing, then how did all those buffalo survive?
From an ecological perspective, the Lewis and Clark expedition started the decline of the prairie by providing the first tentative map of the unknown western wilderness. Soon federal troops poured onto the plains, killing bison, prairie dogs and American Indians with zeal and indifference. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, opening up the plains for anyone with five years residency and enough money to file for a deed. A legion of settlers responded, though by a half-century later, many had failed. The point, environmentalists say, is that the special grazing leases were a reaction to a brief event in history, the Dust Bowl. Times have changed, the environmentalists say, the country has moved on, people want the grasslands back the way they were and ranchers need to quit living in a distorted past.
History is hard to shake, especially when its your own. While the prairie is less threatening today than it was in 1805, todays residents still feel the need to battle the elements and secure the land from invading hordes of two-pound rodents in a strange cultural pastime called recreational shooting.
Recreational shooting is not hunting, says Bob Luce, a former official with Wyoming Game and Fish. Shooters set up on the outskirts of prairie dog towns and pick the animals off from long distances with rifles and sniper scopes. Kills arent pretty. Its like a grenade going off inside a prairie dog, Luce says.
Sporting clubs such as the Red Mist Society probably do not have a huge influence on the prairie dog population, and research shows that in comparison to poisoning and disease, shooting probably minimally affects prairie dog numbers. But Forest Service ranger Bill Perry doesnt buy that.
Most people in the Forest Service who say that shooting does not have an impact are shooters themselves, he says. They have a personal bias. Just looking at a town that has been shot shows an obvious difference in behavior as the animals spend more time underground. Younger rodents, he found, seem less adept at dodging bullets, and their demise skews age demographics.
At a meeting three years ago in Watford City, North Dakota attendees heard about a miracle. During this meeting to discuss grazing leases, Keith Winters, head of a North Dakota grazing association, came under attack for overgrazing his federal allotment. Winters was unmoved. It wasnt his cattle, he said, but hail and a plague of locusts that turned the grass to dust. This answer seemed to suffice until Wayde Schaeffer of the North Dakota Sierra Club spoke. Just a few weeks earlier, Schaeffer had been on Winterss allotment to check for signs of cattle maimed by prairie dog holes. He didnt find any limping cattle, but he did find plenty of signs of locusts. The locusts had been stopped by a barbed-wire fence, sparing all the allotments but Winterss. The Forest Service yanked Winterss lease for overgrazing.
As if in response, a pile of dead prairie dogs appeared one morning on the driveway of Forest Service ranger Spike Thompson.
Permit yanking and other forms of meddling by the federal government drives the ranchers of North Dakota insane. They choose to ignore the federal governments other kind of meddling: the capital investment in livestock, tariffs to favor agriculture, loans for wet seasons, loans for dry seasons, tax incentives and tax exemptions. Congressional records show that all of this meddling leads to an economic windfall in North Dakota that averages nearly $3,000 per capita in annual federal money.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department released a study in 1987 that said if current grazing practices continue, 30 percent to 50 percent of woody draws could disappear from Forest Service land in the next twenty to thirty years, a conclusion that was confirmed by a later study in the late 1990s. During the latest management plan, the governor demanded that Game and Fish review Forest Service allotments for wildlife habitat quality. More than 50 percent of allotments were found to be in poor condition.
As former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas once said, People dont like good science to get in the way of bad policy.
In a deal they struck with the Clinton administration, the North Dakota congressional delegation agreed to an exchange: for not leading the charge against the presidents prized Roadless Area Conservation Rule, the congressional committee was granted an extra ninety days for even more public comment to comment on the most commented on plan in the history of the Forest Service. The management plan was never completed and got handed over to the Bush administration. North Dakota ranchers then cut a deal with Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey. Despite having the worst grazing allotments on the Great Plains, North Dakota ranchers will not have to abide by stricter grazing criteria. Instead, the new grazing criteria will require, you guessed it, even more science.
Its easy being an environmentalist in Seattle, says Schaeffer. But out in North Dakota is where it counts.
The Great Plains Management Plan was finally signed in winter 2003. It was appealed by a litany of environmental groups. They cite numerous violations of property rights, including adverse grazing practices, little land for bighorn sheep and not enough area designated for wilderness. Although many wonder whether it is worthwhile for taxpayers to support ranching when in most years it doesnt turn a profit, Representative Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat, fells it is a worthy lifestyle. He recently introduced federal legislation, the New Homestead Act, which will require more federal money to repopulate a land few care to live on. To many, the national grasslands are a treasurean inheritance few of us will see, but that all of us own. Thats what it says on the deed. As one U.S. Forest Service official put it, If we were going to do anything to Yellowstone, we would reach out far beyond those in the local vicinity to people across the nation. I think we should do the same for the national grasslands. But people dont care because its just a bunch of grass.