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Tribes could be paid to protect prairie dogs

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American Indian tribes soon may be paid to protect a varmint they have inadvertently saved from extinction during the last 70 years.

In June, a consortium of Native Americans, ranchers, environmentalists and federal and state wildlife biologists visited with senators and congressmen from western states asking for $115 million to restore and protect black-tailed prairie dog habitat on 830,000 acres of private and tribal lands.

Much of the money would be used to pay landowners to refrain from poisoning or allowing commercial shooting of prairie dogs on their property over the next decade. Grazing livestock would be still permitted, plus, nuisance animals could be removed. First year costs of $17 million would protect about 267,000 acres.

"It's a true win-win situation for all of the prairie dwellers - wildlife and humans alike," said Bob Luce, interstate coordinator for the 11-state Black-tailed Prairie Dog Conservation Team.

The Farm Bill, up for reauthorization in 2002, or other bills introduced this year, could provide funding.

Biologists estimate that foot-high prairie dog burrows once threw their shadows across an estimated quarter of the 400 million acres of grass that comprised the Great Plains. As bison were slaughtered and the cattle industry expanded, ranchers accused the rodent of eating grass earmarked for livestock.

Their digging occasionally undermined fence posts, and more recently, they sometimes chew through underground cables. The prairie dog can harbor fleas that transmit bubonic plague to humans.

Today, biologists estimate the football-sized rodent has been confined to less than 1 million acres, or 1 percent of its historic range.

Other species that live in or around the unique prairie dog ecosystem have diminished along with the prairie dog population. These creatures may seek shelter or nest in rodent burrows and tunnels, eat the prairie dogs or easily find other prey in the trimmed grasses of the towns.

Help for the prairie dogs should help bolster populations of sensitive species like the burrowing owl, mountain plover, prairie falcon, swift fox, golden eagle - and the black-footed ferret, one of the rarest animals on earth, biologists say.

In 1998, after being sued by three conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the black-tailed prairie dog warranted protection as an endangered species but the agency could do nothing for it because it lacked funding, and other species took a higher priority. With that breathing space, 11 Great Plains states began forming their own conservation plans.

Only six complexes, or groups of colonies, of black-tailed prairie dogs of more than 5,000 acres are known to exist in the United States, plus one in Mexico. Two exist on National Grasslands in South Dakota and Wyoming. Four are on reservations.

The reason so many prairie dog towns survived on tribal lands was not from Native American religious or social values, but from federal neglect of tribes, said Mike Fox, director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society in Denver, Colo.

"When the government came out in the 1930s and 1940s to poison the prairie dog they didn't provide enough funding to eradicate them on tribal lands. Now, the tribes are carrying a lot of the burden for managing prairie dogs. We want to make sure the tribes aren't left out again."

Fox said tribes will participate in any prairie dog conservation program on the same level as the 11 states.

He disagrees the rodent ruins the grasslands. "In a normal rain year, cattle and other wildlife will get more use out of the (weeds) on a prairie dog colony because the plants keep growing back. They don't totally ruin it. But once the growing season ends and the grass is gone, all most people see is a barren piece of land. In dry years, it's bad all around."

For several years Fox managed the prairie dog complex on Montana's Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

The reason ranchers and farmers are interested in protecting a species they were raised to hate is simple, said Scott Klundt of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Washington D.C. - "to prevent its listing as an endangered species. Once a species is listed, then comes habitat designations and restrictions on land use."

"The beauty of the proposal is that it preserves the individual landowner's right to make a decision," adds Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

Environmentalists are also happy with the turn of events, saying the program could signify the turning of the tide for the much maligned rodent.

"The fact that such diverse groups, that traditionally cannot agree on most issues, actually agree on this voluntary incentives approach to restore prairie dogs is precedent setting," said Jonathan Proctor of the Predator Conservation Alliance, based in Bozeman.

If Congress approves the funding for landowner easements, prairie dog habitat could almost double across the Great Plains, from about 1 million acres to about 1.9 million acres. But, Proctor warns that it's still a drop in the bucket, "less than half a percent of the historic Great Plains."

Reservations may see increased business in catering to shooters as western states begin regulating hunting the prairie dogs.

Chuck Cornett, editor of Prairie Dog Digest - the how and where to hunt prairie dogs - brought the magazine's annual promotional hunt to Fort Belknap in July. The reservation contains about 13,000 acres of prairie dog towns.

The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes protect areas around Snake Butte where black-footed ferrets were reintroduced about five years ago at the Buffalo Commons. That area encompasses about 2,000 acres.

Sport shooting is allowed on other prairie dog towns and generates income for the tribes through sales of permits and hiring guides.

Cornett, frustrated with the burgeoning politics surrounding the animal, chose the reservation, in part, because "the only people allowed to protest are those who live on the reservation."

Other reservations supporting prairie dog towns also sell permits and provide guides.