The Road to Conserving Native Plains Wildlife
The Code of the West and "doing the right thing" are more than abstract expressions when it comes to managing our prairie grasslands in states like Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana. These expressions are the basis of a long-standing arguments around managing prairie dogs and can have a different meaning to ranchers and conservationists involved.
Our grasslands provide a home for prairie wildlife and forage for livestock. Management of the lands is complex as federal parcels are intermingled with private and state lands. Federal lands were originally set aside for agriculture purposes in the first half of the 20th century so for some ranchers, “doing the right thing” means putting ranching interests first, supporting their cattle and honoring the historical intentions.
For conservationists, “doing the right thing” means protecting wildlife resources and restoring the grassland’s natural balance. And, as prairie dogs are a keystone species they need to be conserved in large complexes in order to support the many associated species relying on them — like endangered black-footed ferrets, swift fox, burrowing owls, and mountain plover.
Despite the controversies, cattle and prairie dogs can and do coexist. These seemingly disparate interests are not mutually exclusive.
There is a lot at stake when it comes to our grasslands. Prairie dog colonies are an important part of a fully functioning Great Plains ecosystem but we’ve lost 95 percent of their historic range. Our national grasslands — such as Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming and Conta Basin, Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota — are some of the best locations for maintaining a fully functioning complex of prairie dog colonies. Prairie vestiges like these have become too few and isolated from each other, contributing to significant loss of wildlife. Prairie dogs can coexist with cattle operations, just as the species did when we had hundreds of bison herds roaming the prairie.
Conserving our natural heritage is just as important as maintaining our agricultural history in the rural West. Combined, they create a unique sense of place. There really is room for both the rancher’s way of life and conserving a healthy environment. Our Code of the West challenge is to make it work.
One approach is like the old saying, “you can't really understand another person’s experience until you've walked a mile in their shoes.” By having a better understanding of the other stakeholders' perspectives, we are hopeful more dialogue will take shape and create a path forward for long-term solutions.
The question remains though: what exactly is the balance we need to strike on our national grasslands? For Defenders of Wildlife and members across the nation, we are working to achieve this balance with the common goal of healthy grasslands. This means we need to have more compromise for conserving prairie dogs. We need to work together on positive solutions going forward. And we need to do the right thing for the prairie.
This is the first installment in our new monthly blog series, The Road to Conserving Native Plains Wildlife. Check back at the end of August for the next part.