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Marita Prandoni

Marita Prandoni photo courtesy of Marita PrandoniMarita Prandoni has a passion for exploring different cultures and worldviews. She draws inspiration from her family, tutoring extraordinary youth, meeting unexpected heroes and from the stunning natural beauty of her home turf in and around Santa Fe, NM.

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Groundhog Day: Punxsutawney Phil’s Cousins May Be Forecasting a Fate Worse Than a Long Winter
Sunday, 02 February 2014 00:00  |  Written by Marita Prandoni | Blog Entry

Prairie dogs photo by Lawrence in HoustonPrairie dogs are the eyes of the community.
- Terry Tempest Williams

Groundhog Day is most famously celebrated in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where almost always, Phil retreats, forecasting six more weeks of winter. But it is west of the Mississippi where Phil’s cousins, the prairie dogs, may well be offering a more dire prediction—about the fate of humanity. This is why there have been efforts to establish Prairie-Dog Day to bring attention to the plight of these creatures, under attack by ranchers and developers who consider them pests.

In the Rocky Mountain West and out on the range, the smaller prairie dog includes five species: the black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison, Utah and Mexican. These highly social and cute critters live in colonies or “towns” that can stretch across hundreds of acres over grassland and sagebrush steppe habitat.

The Mexican and Utah prairie dogs are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act. Relatives of squirrels, they are also diurnal—clever enough to be out and about by day. While some species are dormant for short cold periods, only the white-tailed prairie dog of the northern Rocky Mountain states is a true hibernator.

Prairie dogs have a range of complex vocalizations or “barks” that are considered some of the most sophisticated of all animals in the wild. Different sounds warn of various predators, including coyotes, hawks, ravens, eagles, owls, badgers, foxes, snakes and ferrets. Yes, they actually distinguish between an eagle and a hawk. Terry Tempest Williams, in her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, references the research by Constanine Slobodchikoff, who—from researching these remarkable creatures for more than 20 years—says they also communicate a predator’s size, color and speed of travel.

Williams also observed a colony over two weeks and described what she interpreted as prairie dog prayer. She described it this way: “I fell in love with this one prairie dog who would stand at the edge of her burrow in the evening and face the setting sun and put her paws together and stand in that posture for 30 minutes. In the morning she’d do the same thing, facing to the east toward the rising sun.”

Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species because they are prey to so many others, such as those mentioned above. The vegetation and burrows they maintain provide a rich ecosystem for to up to 140 species of animals including large herbivores, reptiles, amphibians and the burrowing owl. The black-footed ferret, America’s most endangered mammal, can’t survive without the prairie dog.

Over the past four decades, ranchers and property-rights zealots have waged war against prairie dogs using a pernicious biocide called Rozol, which like DDT kills not only the prairie dog, but also its predators and other species that happen upon their poison-laced habitat. It was registered for black-tailed prairie-dog control in Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas under the most recent Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In May 2009, it was approved by Obama’s EPA for Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and North Dakota. The Logan County Commission in western Kansas, according to Ted Williams in an opinion piece in High Country News, has incited the public against prairie dogs and “nuked” ferret and prairie-dog habitats with Rozol.

Ultimately the question is: Do humans really want to walk this planet without the company of other amazing creatures, some of which are only a fraction of our size but every bit as fascinating and important? If so, how long will we be able to walk without them considering how interrelated all species are to the environment that sustains us? And do we realize that the biocides we recklessly apply might just give rise to powerful superbugs—infinitesimally tiny viruses and bacteria—that may get to be the ‘deciders’ as to whether or not humans will continue to exist on this marvelous planet?

It is doubtful that a groundhog’s shadow can accurately forecast the weather. But in the case of the West’s five prairie-dog species, their retreat will likely mean something far worse for humankind than one longer winter.

Additional resources:
Wild Moments: Adventures with Wild Animals of the North by Ted Williams

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Comments (3)add
Written by Marita Prandoni , February 02, 2011
Laura: In Santa Fe, there are organizations that specialize in relocating prairie dogs humanely. Are there no such organizations in your area? In Albuquerque, there is a group called Prairie Dog Pals, which helps with solutions to humane prairie dog relocation:
Using poison will only poison your own habitat as well.

Rich: thanks for your comment on the Mexican wolf. Yes, in NM, we have sportsmen and the Cattle Growers Association fighting to keep lobos out of the reintroduction habitat, favoring bovine over lupine protection. As Aldo Leopold said, "...while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer [and cattle] may fail of replacement in as many decades."

The biodiversity and ecosystem renewal supplied by both prairie dogs and wolves should be enough to argue for their protection.
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Written by Rich Bard , February 02, 2011
This is in response to Laura, although it has been months since her comment. Wildlife live in very specific habitats,and have no choice where they make their home. They adapt to the conditions around them to a certain extent, making use of the resources available to them (like organic veggies, patio furniture etc. as well as grass and places to burrow). Only humans can choose where to call home. If you live in Arizona I would imagine that you have taken measures to protect yourself from the hot sun and have found a way to secure a reliable source of water. If you consider the local wildlife as one of the conditions of the place where you have chosen to live, then you can find solutions to the problems posed by animals. It may cost some money and require some hard work on your part, but there are ways to secure your property to keep prairie dogs out of your yard without the use of inhumane poisons. It may be impractical to keep acres and acres free of the animals, but I would bet you can keep them out of your patio, garage and a reasonable size garden or yard. I would start by contacting your county's Cooperative Extension office and continue your research online.

Also, a comment to Marita: At one time, black-footed ferrets were considered the most endangered mammal in North America. Today, that dubious distinction is held by the Mexican wolf. There are over 1,000 wild black-footed ferrets compared with approximately 300 lobos in captivity and another 45 or so in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico.
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Written by Laura , June 10, 2010
Do you have to 'live' with prairie dogs? In Az, I do. They eat all of our grass. They are burrowing under our home and causing hundreds of dollars in damages! They chew on our patio furniture, A/C wire and have completely ruined my organic vegetable garden. They sneak in the garage and eat everything they can, ruining several things in the garage. They are horrible little creatures and unless you have had to deal with them first hand, you will never understand. I have never hated an animal in my life the way I hate these creatures. I am at my wits end trying to get rid of them and am about to take drastic measures to get them out of my life!!!
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