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As the Village Turns

Running for cover


As of two weeks ago, the black-tailed prairie dog is no - longer listed as threatened under the Endangered - Species Act. - CREIGHTON SMITH
  • Creighton Smith
  • As of two weeks ago, the black-tailed prairie dog is no longer listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The second-easiest way to tick off those fun-loving National Rifle Association folks who live in our village is to take away their constitutional right to shoot small rodents. (The easiest way to tick them off, of course, is to hide the tattered plaid flannel shirts they like to wear to events such as their own weddings.)

And so, in September 2001, the Colorado Wildlife Commission made the NRA folks angry by banning the longtime practice of shooting prairie dogs in the head as they popped out of their burrows and then leaving the dead animals to rot. (After about a week under the hot prairie sun, the dead rodents' skin becomes so wrinkled and saggy that frankly, you can't tell where the dead prairie dog ends and Charlton Heston begins.)

Unlike legitimate hunting in which the animal is used for food, sometimes for clothing and, in many parts of West Virginia, school supplies -- "Cousin Daddy, that possum-skin backpack you maked for me last year is startin' to smell like, well, like you!" -- prairie dogs were killed in what was considered target practice, giving those kind of folks something to do until the evening, when Hee Haw came on.

Just for the record, I'm not opposed to hunting. I've hunted each fall since the age of 14 and now take my two sons deep into the woods every elk season where -- like my father and his father and even his father did -- we make a lot of noise, never actually see any elk and then accidentally lock the keys in our truck and have to hitchhike 20 miles back to town to find a locksmith.

Popping up again

But back to the prairie dogs. In 1998, after decades of having no protection under our state's hunting laws and being shot by the tens of thousands for the enjoyment of people who didn't do real well on their SAT exams (about 90 percent incorrectly answered the very first question: Spell SAT), the black-tailed prairie dog began to get some help.

The National Wildlife Federation, an animal rights organization, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for protection for the prairie dogs, which are between 14 and 17 inches long, weigh about 2 pounds and are members of the squirrel family that also includes chipmunks and marmots. (The prairie dogs seldom R.S.V.P. for family reunions, preferring to just pop up at the last minute.)

Two years later, in 2000, the Fish and Wildlife Service -- which mapped about 2,000 acres of active black-tailed prairie dog habitat in El Paso County -- designated the animal as threatened. A year after that, many Western states, including Colorado, banned so-called "sport hunting" of the species. The prairie dog began to thrive and prosper, eventually becoming involved in local politics, although it's possible I'm confusing the little rodent with Doug Bruce.

Now, however, the protection is being lifted. Two weeks ago the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the black-tailed prairie dog "does not meet the Endangered Species Act's definition of 'threatened' and therefore will be removed as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act."

The 1,400-word press release was great news, especially to people who can't read. Because it's just a matter of time before Colorado and other states lift their "hunting" ban and certain types of people can once again open fire on colonies of prairie dogs. You know, when they're not rushing to their mailboxes to check for the results of their Mensa Club applications.

Change of heart

So why the change of heart by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

Here now, part of its actual explanation: "All 10 states with occupied black-tailed prairie dog habitat have provided the Service with comprehensive survey information. These efforts were systematically designed and implemented, although methodologies differed among states."

(Prairie dog counters in Wyoming, for instance, used a method in which they count prairie dog feet and then divide by four. And officials in Utah used the same method they use for human census figures: Count the males, figure nine wives for each one, and do the multiplication.)

The Fish and Wildlife Service went on to explain -- in that clear, concise, common-language approach favored by all federal government agencies -- that original estimates of the prairie dog population that led to the protected status were based on "extrapolation of partial surveys, telephone surveys and desktop exercises." And the new estimates were based, in part, on "field surveys and/or interpretations of recent remotely sensed data."

Let's review what we've learned.

The old estimates of the population of black-tailed prairie dogs were based on telephone surveys.

As I understand it, these weren't very accurate because many of the prairie dogs had put their names on the state's "No Call" list. (And lots of other prairie dogs, like the people who "hunt" them, don't have phones.)

Much of the work involved "desktop exercises."

Which makes the prairie dog surveys not totally unlike the Clinton presidency.

The lifting of the prairie dog protection was based in part on "interpretations of recent remotely sensed data."

Which is exactly the same way our federal government found all those chemical and "nuke-u-lar" weapons in Iraq.

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