Prairie Dog Fights

Doug

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http://www.rapidcityjournal.com/articles/2004/03/07/news/local/news02.txt

Dog fight
By Steve Miller, West River Editor

OGLALA — Jim Glade of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and John Sidle of the U.S. Forest Service stand looking out over a prairie landscape pocked by thousands of prairie dog holes.

They are on the edge of the largest single prairie dog town in the world, estimated at more than 25,000 acres. It stretches from Bureau of Indian Affairs Highway 41 north of Oglala on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation almost to the Fall River County line, about eight miles west.

Although Sidle and Glade, both federal employees, are standing in the same spot, they see different views.

Sidle sees a rare ecosystem that could provide habitat for burrowing owls, endangered black-footed ferrets, swift fox and other species dependent on prairie dogs. He is an endangered-species coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service.

"I see something that's really unique because there's nothing like it in North America," Sidle said.

Glade, a land manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Pine Ridge, says, simply, "I see devastation."The differing views of the two men typify the ongoing argument about prairie dogs in the West.

Sidle, like other biologists, says large prairie dog colonies such as this one are key to the survival of black-footed ferrets and other species.

The National Wildlife Federation and other groups a few years ago persuaded the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to declare that the black-tailed prairie dog deserved listing as a threatened species, putting a halt to virtually all poisoning on federal land.

But Glade says large prairie dog colonies ruin land for livestock grazing.

That means economic loss for ranchers grazing their cattle there, just like it does for ranchers elsewhere in western South Dakota. Ranchers in Conata Basin near Badlands National Park, for example, have protested loudly that prairie dogs coming from the federal Buffalo Gap National Grassland are streaming onto their private land, ruining it for grazing.

Ranchers who have grazing permits on the national grasslands are also complaining about the proliferation of prairie dogs.

But Glade says prairie dogs on reservations have an added dimension. That's because the grazing fees go not to the federal government, but to actual landowners, either individual American Indian landowners or the tribes.

The federal government doesn't own the land. It is the trustee for the land.

About 60 percent of the grazing land on Pine Ridge reservation is owned by individuals and about 40 percent by the tribe. That percentage probably applies, also, to the world's biggest prairie dog town north of Oglala, Glade said.

"There's people who derive an income from this," Glade said. Grazing fees are the main source of income for tribal members, he added.

Land overseen by his office generates more than $3 million a year in grazing fees, Glade said.

Because of prairie dog infestations, Glade said his office probably would be forced to reduce the number of cattle allowed on tribal grazing lands.

The 100,000 acres — or more — inhabited by prairie dogs on Pine Ridge reservation, as well as at least 72,000 acres on other reservations in South Dakota, are part of the key to the state's efforts to get prairie dogs removed from the threatened species candidate list.

The Forest Service's Sidle has been conducting an aerial survey for the state of South Dakota to give it more accurate prairie dog population figures to turn over to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Sidle said he has been impressed as he flies over the large colonies on tribal land. Other colonies are in the same area as the huge complex just north of the White River in western Shannon County.

Caught in the middle

Scott Cuny is a tribal member who ranches 1,200 acres of his own land and leases another roughly 14,000 acres through the BIA. The western edge of his ranch lies right across Highway 41 from the eastern edge of the world's largest prairie dog colony.

Cuny is not impressed. He is angry.

Prairie dogs from the big colony continue to come onto his ranch.

Poisoning prairie dogs is not banned on the reservation. But it's expensive for individual landowners.

Cuny has spent his own money over the past several years — $10,000 last year — to poison prairie dogs on his ranch.

Despite his efforts, Cuny said prairie dogs have increased 60 percent on his land over the last 10 years.

Prairie dogs are coming off neighboring land, including the tribe's own ranch, he said.

He doesn't blame the tribe. But he says he shouldn't have to pay out of his own pocket. "That's a trust responsibility of the BIA to take care of the land," Cuny said.

Glade estimates up to 80,000 acres in the area are occupied by prairie dogs.

Joe Hawk, who also lives north of Oglala, said the land around his house used to have grass growing 18 inches high. Now, covered with prairie dogs, the grass is chewed down to the nub. "That used to be choice ground," Hawk said. "Now, it's nothing."

Prairie dogs have begun burrowing in Hawk's yard a few feet from his house.

Prairie dog holes also dot the nearby Our Lady of Good Counsel Cemetery, which Hawk tends. The old cemetery contains graves of longtime community members and even two warriors who fought Custer at the Little Bighorn.

Prairie dogs have burrowed into some of the graves.

"These people deserve respect," Hawk said.

He, too, hopes the BIA will take action.

No money for poison

But Glade said the BIA simply has no money to pay for prairie dog poisoning. "We're short on money anyway to run our programs," he said.

Oglala Sioux Tribe land office director Dave Pourier agrees prairie dogs are becoming a more serious problem on the Pine Ridge reservation. "There's a whole lot of dogs out there," he said.

Pourier says both the BIA and Sidle's survey have underestimated the number of prairie dogs on Pine Ridge. He believes prairie dogs infest 200,000 acres on the reservation.

But Pourier says the tribe doesn't have any money for prairie dog control, either. He says the tribe has asked Sens. Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson to try to get additional money from Congress.

Daschle said he has talked with Oglala Sioux Tribe members about creating prairie dog management programs similar to those at Rosebud and Cheyenne River reservations.

Daschle says he has helped secure more than $5 million for prairie dog management on those reservations since 2000. Both tribes are asking for additional money in the next federal budget.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has begun providing prairie dog poison on a limited basis. The Tribal Land Enterprises office provides bait and zinc phosphide poison to ranchers licensed to use the poison. The poison is free, to be used on land managed by the TLE office, according to director Ben Black Bear. For other tribal land, ranchers have to pay for the poison, Black Bear said.

His office has a full-time prairie dog coordinator.

The TLE program spent about $40,000 last year to treat 15,000 acres, mostly in the western part of Todd County.

"It's pretty effective from the reporting I get from our coordinator," Black Bear said. "There's been a lot of control in the large town areas."

Black Bear admits the eastern half of Todd and much of Mellette County are still heavily populated with prairie dogs.

Cheyenne River Indian Reservation to the north has fewer total prairie dogs but enough to prompt a lot of complaints from ranchers, according to Inez Iron Bird, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe land director.

Sidle so far has found about 22,000 acres of prairie dogs in Ziebach County, the western half of the reservation. He hasn't finished counting prairie dog acreage in Dewey County, the eastern half of the reservation.

Iron Bird said prairie dogs are ruining some of the range units.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe doesn't provide poison, but gives ranchers discounts on their leases for tribal land covered with prairie dogs, according to Mike Claymore.

Ecology vs. economy

Claymore says he sees both sides of the argument. He is both the tribe's endangered species coordinator and an economic development official.

As the former, he sees the need for large prairie dog complexes to support other species such as black-footed ferrets. The tribe reintroduced that endangered species a few years ago. "You can't have a prairie ecology without prairie dogs," Claymore said.

But as an economic development official, Claymore sees the threat to the tribe's grazing revenues because of prairie dogs.

He says the federal government should provide incentive payments to tribes and ranchers who have prairie dogs on their land.

Few people want to completely eradicate prairie dogs, Claymore said. "We've all pretty much come to a mutual understanding that there has to be some acreage allotted for prairie dogs," he said. "It's just a matter of how many and where."

The situation is awkward for federal agencies such as the BIA. After the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared that prairie dogs deserved listing as a threatened species, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service stopped virtually all prairie dog control.

Prairie dogs expand

In the mid-1980s Congress approved a special appropriation to poison prairie dogs on the Pine Ridge reservation.

Since then, however, widespread control has ended and prairie dogs have expanded, particularly during recent drought years.

Glade says 80 percent of some grazing units are occupied by prairie dogs. "A lot of that stuff has just turned to dirt," he said.

The tribes could face an uphill battle to get additional federal money for prairie dog control. The federal budget deficit is swelling, and the black-tailed prairie dog is still on the threatened species candidate list.

But even if the tribes or the BIA get help and start controlling prairie dogs, their efforts won't jeopardize state efforts to get the prairie dog removed from the candidate list, according to George Vandel, chief biologist with the state Game, Fish & Parks Department.

Vandel is among South Dakota officials working with a multi-state group trying to get prairie dogs off the list.

Part of their argument is proving that there already are plenty of prairie dogs. The goal for South Dakota is about 200,000 acres of prairie dogs. Of that total, the target for all non-tribal land — private, state and federal — is about170,000 acres. Vandel says Sidle's survey will find that number when finished. That means only about 30,000 acres are needed on tribal lands, Vandel said.

Sidle's survey already has found 100,000 prairie dog acres on Pine Ridge, nearly 50,000 acres on Rosebud, and about 22,000 acres in Ziebach County (the western half of the Cheyenne River reservation). Sidle isn't finished counting acres on Corson and Dewey counties. Dewey County makes up the eastern part of the reservation.

"The tribes could ratchet their prairie dog numbers down to 30,000 or 40,000 acres and still be within their prairie dog goals," Vandel said. "I don't think they're going to get down to the numbers in any hurry that would cause us to start wringing our hands and say they're poisoning too many prairie dogs on tribal land." In any case, Vandel said, control decisions are up to the tribes.

Meanwhile, prairie dogs continue to proliferate.

That's one thing the Forest Service's Sidle and the BIA's Glade agree on.

They say prairie dogs are increasing 15-20 percent a year on the western side of the Pine Ridge reservation. "It's just taking off," Glade said.

"Maybe it's reached a critical mass, and nothing will stop it," Sidle said.

Sidle suggested the big prairie dog complexes could be used to draw tourists.

Glade, the land manager, says the endangered species act too often has had unintended bad consequences.

"They ought to let nature be nature," Glade said.

Sidle agrees, but from a different perspective. "That's what's happening here. Let prairie dogs grow."

Sidle hopes a large-scale poisoning project doesn't happen.

"It would be a shame ... because the large complex in western Shannon County would be perfect for black-footed ferrets, swift fox and burrowing owls."

Cuny, the Indian rancher, admits that might be true.

"But there's people here, too," Cuny said. "This is how we make our living."

Cuny said his family has been ranching north of the White River since the 1880s. "I would like to stay here," he said. "If these prairie dogs keep spreading, I can't afford to live here."

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8417 or [email protected]
 

Doug

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Jul 10, 2001
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LMAO Del! Thats what I was thinking! :D
I've heard that prairie dog shooting is becoming a big business with leased ranches and paid guides. What's up with that? Has anyone at Huntalk paid for a prairie dog shoot? Is it hard to find a place to shoot for free anymore?
Doug
 

smalls

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Dec 16, 2003
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red river of the north
No, it's not difficult at all to find a place to shoot prairie rats. You see them by the thousands in western Sodak.

In today's edition of the rapid city journal, they have a story about newly discovered pd town w/in rapidcitylimits. They haven't decided what to do with them yet (exterminate or let them be).
 

mtmiller

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Jul 7, 2001
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Montana
There are quite a few dog towns in western SD. While in college, I worked on a ranch south of Rapid for two summers. My job was to shoot and live trap prairie dogs. Life was good, $8/hour to throw lead at unwary prairie dogs.

As for the 25K acre town being the largest in the world, untrue. The largest black-tailed town in the world is found in Mexico. Just a little tid bit for inquiring minds.
 

nitro x

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Nov 15, 2003
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Az
I think Ill get a new 22-250 and go to SD for a week or two and help them poor Indians.
Ill use any excuse to get a new rifle. :D
 
Yeti

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