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Ranchers Complain That Damage To Land From Prairie Dogs Is Getting Worse

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INTERIOR, S.D. (AP) _ Charles Kruse knows he's lucky to be living and ranching in a place where other people take vacations _ just south of the stark spires and buttes of Badlands National Park.

But his voice rises in agitation when he talks about the invaders that swarm over his private land each summer and trash it: prairie dogs, not tourists.

``It's like a moonscape out there, but this should be the greenest, nicest part of the year,'' said Kruse, who has cut his cattle herd in half because of a lingering drought and the continuing prairie dog invasion.

Only a few years after state and federal officials first took steps to control the vast prairie dog colony in Conata Basin, just south of the badlands, Kruse and other ranchers say the damage to public and private land is just getting worse.

Sixteen families that run cattle in the 20-mile-long basin depend on the grass that grows on their land and the pastures they lease on the adjacent federal Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

After prairie dogs have stripped the grass from the public land, hordes of the rodents migrate every spring to the adjacent private land, Kruse said.

``It's the most wonderful place to raise a family and the most wonderful place to live,'' Kruse said. ``I just wish I had neighbors who weren't such terrible neighbors. What do you do when your worst neighbors are the federal government?''

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the national grasslands, is studying whether to expand prairie dog poisoning. Kruse said ranchers doubt there will be enough poisoning to thin the population.

Jonathan Proctor, a Denver field representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said drought is the major culprit of reduced livestock grazing, so prairie dogs should not be killed as scapegoats.

Proctor also said the prairie dog colony and its bare ground support a wide range of other animals, including the endangered black-footed ferret, which has been reintroduced in the area and eats prairie dogs.

``When somebody says prairie dogs destroy the land, I question that,'' Proctor said. ``What does destroy mean? When you look at what prairie dogs do to the land, they create. They create amazing wildlife habitat for many animals that depend on it.''

The U.S. Forest Service is caught in the middle. Its job of managing the national grasslands demonstrates the government's difficulty in trying to satisfy both sides.

In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said prairie dogs might be in trouble. But in 2004, the agency decided not to give them protection because new population estimates indicated they are not likely to become extinct anytime soon.

In the meantime, the Forest Service was not allowed to poison prairie dogs on public land. The drought and the moratorium on poisoning led to a population explosion in the Conata Basin, and the prairie dogs invaded neighboring private ranches.

The basin, which stretches from Badlands National Park in the north to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the south, has extra restrictions because it's the most successful reintroduction site of black-footed ferrets. Prairie dog shooting is banned on public land.

For the past two years, the Forest Service has allowed poisoning of prairie dogs on half-mile buffer zones next to private ranches, and the state has poisoned any critters that ventured onto private land.

Ranchers complain that the poisoning has been too limited, partly because it is not done until fall each year. Migrating prairie dogs move back into the poisoned areas the next spring and eat the grass until the next fall's poisoning, they argue.

The ranchers have asked that prairie dogs on the national grasslands be poisoned back a full mile. They also have a lawsuit pending that asks the state to compensate them for their losses due to prairie dogs.

Don Bright, Forest Service supervisor in Chadron, Neb., said he sympathizes with the ranchers and is doing what he can. The area is in its seventh year of drought, he said.

``We are trying to be a good neighbor, but Mother Nature is probably throwing us the worst we've seen in a long time,'' Bright said. ``With little moisture, the grass doesn't have a chance to grow, and conditions out there continue to look pretty harsh.''

Ranchers, who have seen their income drop as they have cut their cattle herds, are looking for help soon. ``I think the most endangered species in North America is the farmer-rancher,'' Kruse said.
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