For such small animals, prairie dogs stir up big controversy. In a meeting organized by the Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen's Beef Association, ranchers from South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska met Tuesday night with top public lands officials to discuss the federal prairie dog management plan. As it is now, ranchers say, it isn't sufficient to accomplish its goals.
"The issue we see is two-fold," says Myron Williams, Wall rancher and member of the Public Lands Council. "Buffer zones have been argued about and argued about but they don't address what is perhaps a bigger problem, which is the core population. We can try to keep prairie dogs on public lands with buffer zones, but we're still going to have a problem with overpopulation and land degradation on the property they're on."
Williams, a member of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association, and moderator of the meeting, is one of many ranchers working to make sure the U.S. Forest Service plan for management of prairie dogs does enough to prevent further permanent damage of the areas inhabited by prairie dogs.
The Conata Basin south of Wall is a nightmare for anyone who cares about the land, Williams says. Nothing grows there, the topsoil is gone and there's nothing there for anything to eat, thanks to the prairie dogs." When they run out of food they either have to move on or die out. Personally, I don't want to see my property look like a 1930s Dust Bowl photo, which is what much of the Conata Basin resembles, so I want to make sure there are methods in place to keep the prairie dogs under control."
Williams recommends treating prairie dogs like any other species, deer, pheasants, even cattle. "We have to manage them to protect not only the environment, but themselves. No one wants to see an unhealthy population of any animal, which is what prairie dogs face if left unchecked," he says. "We aren't talking eradication, we're talking management."
Ranchers and environmental groups are working together to get the Forest Service to do a supplementary environmental impact statement on what is really necessary to reach the goals of maintaining a healthy ecosystem as well as a healthy population of prairie dogs, yet not have them spread to private land where they are not wanted. "We want this based on sound science," Williams says. "The more information we have going into this project, the more likely we are to succeed, from all standpoints."
Agencies represented at this meeting included South Dakota Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as Acting Deputy Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Natural Resources and Environment. Representatives from Sen. John Thune and Nebraska Rep. Tom Osborne's staffs were also present.
The meeting was followed up Wednesday with a tour of the Conata Basin.