Prairie dogs are part of what makes Wyoming’s landscape unique, but for many property owners the animals are a nuisance, and efforts to conserve their habitat have caused conflicts.
Adding to the conflict is the underlying worry for some that the endangered black-footed ferret – which relies on prairie dogs for its main food source – would be reintroduced in Converse County.
The conflict is nothing new, and the plan to manage prairie dogs in Converse County is under constant revision. This year the U.S. Forest Service is in the permitting process to trans-locate four prairie dog towns located in the northeastern region of Converse County near or on the Thunder Basin National Grassland. The translocation is planned to take prairie dogs off of land on or near private properties into protected areas. If the Forest Service gets the permits to transport the prairie dogs from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the translocation could begin in July or August and last several weeks.
“We manage habitat and the land,” said acting District Ranger Jan Burke of the Douglas Ranger District. “These areas (for translocation) are all within a mile of someone’s residence. There’s some concern that if these towns would get plague, that plague could be transmitted to a person. That’s how they were chosen.”
The Forest Service plans to meet with the Game and Fish at the end of April or in May to get permission to move the dogs. The towns contain between 20 and 300 prairie dogs.
During a presentation to the Converse County Commission April 4, some of the commissioners had some concerns, and they once again raised the issue of the black-footed ferret, the Endangered Species Act protections and restrictions it would bring and the additional lands impacted by moving prairie dog towns to new areas.
“What I see as a problem is you’re developing potential black-footed ferret habitat,” Commissioner Rick Grant said. “It’s one of these ‘build it and they will come’ kind of designs. It’s in an area that I understand has not been identified as a location for translocating black-footed ferrets into. I’ve got a problem with that.”
The Forest Service identifies different types of areas for translocation, two of which are category one and category two. The first category is the most strict. Anything classified as category one must include at least 18,000 acres to provide black-footed ferrets with reintroduction habitat.
One of the main stipulations of category one is that lethal means of prairie dog control are restricted and typically only include poisoning in certain circumstances.
Category two areas aim to have clusters of prairie dog towns with a minimum of 1,500 acres with a total of 9,000 acres total. Control includes translocation as well as poisoning when populations expand past limitations or fall below minimums.
Converse County is prime prairie dog habitat and has both category one and two areas.
Regardless, many local landowners would like to see an overall reduction in the number of prairie dogs.
“The rancher wants to reduce the number of dogs, and I guess maybe eliminate them,” Converse County rancher Frank Eathorne Sr. said, “but that’s not practical. We would like to reduce the numbers and when the Forest Service translocates them, that doesn’t reduce the numbers, and not only that, they’re still on someone’s grazing allotment. All that land out there is permitted for grazing – all the federal land, all the grassland.”
Forest Service officials said they have obligations to different interests both for and against prairie dog habitat and expansion.
“There is a whole other set of interests that want to conserve prairie dogs and the habitat they provide for other species,” deputy District Ranger Misty Hays said. “We are trying to find a balance between local concerns versus other (interests) that want to conserve them.”
Part of what makes the prairie dogs difficult to manage from the Forest Service’s perspective is rapid population growth and decline.
“I believe plague came through, and there seems to be a correlation when populations get to a certain threshold then they get plague and they squeeze back down again,” Burke said. “At this point in time they are starting to come back down again.”
Areas for translocation are chosen on a variety of factors including public input.
According to Burke, the Forest Service goes to ranch and grazing associations as well as county commissioners folks who have said they want input. With the input certain areas get prioritization for translocation as well as poison on an annual basis.