“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior, 1890
|Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma|
Today the Nebraska state senate is, most likely, passing a bill--LB473--that will allow the government to go on to private land and poison prairie dogs, which are being classified as noxious weeds (don't ask, you know how government works). If pdogs on your land spread to adjacent land, then the government has the right to go poison your animals and then bill you later. Not only is private property being disregarded, but more importantly, so is the health of a keystone Great Plains species.
Prairie dogs once numbered 3-5 billion across the mixed and short grass prairies. One town in Texas was estimated to be 100 x 250 miles, or 16 million acres and 400 million pdogs. Meriwether Lewis called them barking squirrels.
|Historic Range of all Prairie Dog Species|
Since pdogs constantly clip plants and flowers in their towns in order to keep an eye out for predators, their towns were prime grazing land for bison, as fresh forage was always guaranteed. Prairie dogs also improve the soil, constantly turning it over, bringing up minerals for plants. In fact, prairie dog towns increase biodiversity and stabilization across a range of species--grasshoppers love the towns and feed birds, vacant holes provide nesting sites and shelter for all sorts of amphibians and owls and rodents and insects, and all that prey feeds endangered hawks and foxes and ferrets. My favorite childhood toad in Oklahoma, the Texas horned lizard, has seen its population fall over 50% in the last few decades as ant colonies, their primary food source, vanish. Ants love prairie dog towns.
Prairie dogs are what biologists call a keystone species, much like the bison were--that is, such a large number of other species depend on their existence that without them whole vast ranges of the ecosystem simply vanish. Gone. Gone. Gone.
If we poison prairie dogs, we poison the health of the land we depend upon, and we erode our very own culture. This is a tired argument no one listens to, though. Certainly not ranchers, whose major claims against pdogs is that they destroy the grazing land by eating forage and creating holes for cattle to fall into. I have yet to drive by a prairie dog town strewn with fallen cattle, crying out into the void, starving with their legs broken. If anything, cattle should be poisoned--they foul fresh water streams, erode those stream banks, and trample away grass and wildflowers. The amount of water, drugs, and fattening corn they demand in a beef culture severely taxes our environment in ways we can't even begin to address here. We've been duped.
All of this reminds me of the anecdote where a rancher caught a coyote he thought was preying on his sheep, tied a stick of dynamite to it, lit the stick, and let the coyote run off to explode. The coyote ran for cover under the rancher's new truck.
I'm so disgusted by our society and our culture, to the blindness of our governments established to protect us, to watch out for us, to correct the blindness of our greed and set a higher example, to hold us to our most basic moral and ethical beliefs even when we turn a blind eye to them. Pipe dreams that maybe never existed. Right now lobbyists for ranchers are cashing their checks, and life on this planet continues to be manipulated in ways that simply dwarf the genocide we commit on our own species (our oceans are near death being over harvested, soon we will grow chicken breasts in petri dishes). Yet there will be no books, no speeches, no monuments to the fallen prairie dogs, to the blowout penstemon of the sand hills, to the salt creek tiger beetle. What difference is there, in the end, to a pile of emaciated humans in a concentration camp and bodies of poisoned prairie dogs spelling out the word "US Biological Survey?"
Here's a piece by Paul Johnsgard noting in what ways the prairie dog is morally superior to humans, and so should be placed on the state flag. It's tongue in cheek. Or is it.
(Stats and figures taken from Prairie Dog Empire by Paul Johnsgard and Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild by Michael Forsberg)