for National Geographic News
A controversial prairie dog poisoning program has begun on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in southwestern South Dakota. The goal is to control the spread of prairie dogs to adjacent private land.
Using all-terrain vehicles, a crew of state employees and contractors will roar through thousands of acres of federal land over the next few weeks, spreading oats saturated with zinc phosphide over prairie dog burrows.
A state official said work may be completed as early as mid-November.
Local ranchers who lease the federal land for grazing pushed for the poisoning because they feel the rodents compete with their cattle for grass.
But conservation groups are concerned that the reduction of prairie dogs might affect a population of black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes), which rely on the rodents for 90 percent of their diet.
The black-footed ferret is listed as an endangered species by both the state of South Dakota and the federal government and is considered to be one of the rarest mammals in North America. Biologists say the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands' Conata Basin, where the ferret has been reintroduced, is home to the only self-sustaining population in the world.
This is the first time in five years that poisoning has been allowed.
The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), the only species of prairie dog found in South Dakota, had been a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced two months ago that it had determined that the black-tailed prairie dog was not likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future, so the service was removing the rodent as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Moratorium on Killing Lifted
This lifted the moratorium on killing prairie dogs.
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