The Logan County commissioners want the prairie dogs dead. But two ranchers, Larry Haverfield and Gordon Barnhardt, and their allies in two environmental groups want the 5,500-acre colony on their property to flourish, for the good of the land and for the eventual delectation of black-footed ferrets. The ferrets, an endangered mammal, thrive on a diet of prairie dogs.Some of my favorite childhood memories come from the vacations my family would take every year. For two weeks each June, my father's factory would shut down, enabling the workers to have some time off. We would usually go on vacation during that period. We usually went somewhere in the East or South, but two years we vacationed in the West. Although one year was spent mostly in the Northwest and one year in the Southwest, we spent some time in Yellowstone National Park during both trips.
The ranchers’ defense of prairie dogs prompted bewilderment then anger in this county of about 3,100 people. Here in this red corner of a red state, where the sanctity of property rights is seldom questioned and the sanity of the government is questioned all the time, the prairie dog debate has turned everything upside down.
Some people are demanding enforcement of a century-old state law allowing the county to send exterminators onto the Haverfield and Barnhardt ranches — against the owners’ wishes but at their expense — to protect local property values.
This confrontation is one of several in recent years across the West that pit property owners trying to restore wildlife against local governments who see the actions as a threat to local economic interests. It also reflects the persistent belief in the Great Plains that the prairie dog is not a valued remnant of the short-grass prairie of the past, but a despised pest that eats grass needed to fatten cattle.
Alan Pollom, the director of the Kansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy, called the question of conserving prairie dogs “one of the more vexing problems you can possibly come up with in the arena of wildlife management” because property lines tend to be incompatible with the prairie dogs’ age-old practice of digging new holes and expanding their tunneled colonies across the landscape.
Yellowstone is where I became familiar with prarie dogs. At the time we were there, which would have been around 1982 or 1983, there was a prarie dog town close to the Old Faithful Inn. When I wasn't running around in the bookstore or the main floor of the Inn, I spent time watching the prarie dogs. I found them endlessly fascinating. They didnt' seem to mind living so close to humans, although they didn't like it when I ventured close to their holes. I remember one ranger yelling at me for getting to close to them, but what did I care about some weird adult scolding me? I was in heaven, watching those prarie dogs.
It's been years since I've been to Yellowstone, but I hope the prarie dogs are still there.