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Prairie dogs: Pest or pets?

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia
 

Prairie Dog - Phot by Don GettyPrairie dogs, those cute little animals that sit up on their hind legs like kangaroos and meerkats, are multiplying to plague level in some US western states, in the same way that rabbits and mice have in Australia from time to time. Despite their lovable looks, prairie dogs are not related to domestic dogs. In fact, they're rodents, like rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs.

Farmers (ranchers) and private landowners say the creatures can reduce crops, lower land values and create hazards for horses and other animals that may step into their holes. Again, just like our rabbits.

Last month, the Colorado Wildlife Commission decided that farmers and others would be allowed to pump a propane mixture into the animals' burrows, then ignite the gas to cause an explosion. Division of Wildlife spokesman Joe Lewandowski said land owners now had a new option, in addition to shooting them, sucking them out of the ground with a vacuum, poisoning or drowning them.

"I've got prairie dogs so thick I can't see straight," said. Sterling farmer Matt Fickes. "They're born pregnant... The prairie dog is a rat with a shovel." He said he had shot about 20 of the animals a week on his 60 acre property, after trying to poison them, and might try the new method.

Understandably, animal lovers were horrified. Judy Enderle of the Prairie Preservation Alliance, said "It's disgusting. It's very depressing that they would go to this length just to have another way to wage war on wildlife."

In Colorado, prairie dogs now occupy more than 10 times as much land in the Pawnee National Grassland as they did six years ago.

The Humane Society of the United States said the city of Fort Collins should stop killing prairie dogs in its natural areas. A researcher urged the council to abandon plans to fumigate prairie dogs, and instead transfer surplus animals to a natural area near the Colorado/Wyoming border.

In New Mexico, an estimated 1500 prairie dogs plague Albuquerque International Airport. "We've trapped and relocated about 410 this year," said spokesman Daniel Jironhe. Santa Fe municipal airport has a similar problem.

In Kansas, the Federal government is thinking of using ferrets to reduce the increasing number of prairie dogs in Logan County, where County Clerk Pat Schippers reported that prairie dogs had multiplied so much this year that the animals were out of control. The Wildlife Commission was concerned that introduction of ferrets would hurt current attempts to control prairie dogs with chemicals.

And in Utah, golfers complained that prairie dogs' burrows were spoiling their course, and plans were made to relocate the animals. An environmental group opposed the idea, and the project came to a standstill. The director of the Forest Guardians endangered species program, Nicole Rosmarino, said the plan was unnecessary, and would lead to the animals becoming extinct.

Someone who lives near the golf course commented: "I regard golfers as a bigger pest than prairie dogs, and a bigger threat to the environment. Between 60 and 70 per cent of Utah's urban water consumption goes to watering lawns and golf courses, in the state with the second highest per capita water consumption."

Animal lovers would enjoy visiting Don Getty's wildlife and nature gallery. Just click on the image at the top of this page.

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Story first posted October 2006

Copyright 2006

Eric Shackle

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