Prairie dogs have more in common with Redwood Trees and Bison than the casual observer might guess. All three thrived in great numbers before the European invasion of North America; all three suffered severe decreases in their population at the hands of the newcomers, declining by 96-99%; and all three are still, incredibly, under assault.
The Redwoods covered about 2,000,000 acres in 1850, from Monterey County in California to the Chetco River in Oregon. Now, only a few isolated islands remain. Despite this, the Redwoods still need to be defended.
The Bison’s range once stretched from Idaho to Virginia, and Minnesota to Texas, and the animals numbered 25-30 million. By 1890, Whites had hunted them down to a few hundred. The famous Yellowstone herd, which is based out of the national park, is descended from just 23 individuals and currently numbers less than 5000. Despite this, the Bison still need to be defended.
Prairie dogs are a keystone species originally found throughout the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states of the US. Though once quite common, over the past century their population has plunged by over 98% due to the activites of the US Occupation, with cascading effects to other fauna and flora. Despite this, they too still need to be defended.
Prairie dogs differ from the Redwood and the Bison in one important aspect: unlike the previous two, they enjoy very little legal protection. Only two of the five species of prairie dog are officially listed as under threat, but these laws are rarely enforced. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has so far turned down all petitions to list the other three species. At the local level, few pro-prairie dog laws exist and in fact some counties actually require the eradication of prairie dogs on private land.
So killing prairie dogs is still a common occurrence. Earlier this month, in Longmont, Colorado, a prairie dog colony was exterminated for no urgent reason and against the wishes of local residents. It was this story that brought the plight of the prairie dogs to my attention and inspired me to investigate further.
Biology and Ecology
Prairie dogs are classified into five different species in the genus Cynomys, of which four are found in the United States: Gunnison’s prairie dog (C. gunnisoni). the white-tailed prairie dog (C. leucurus), the black-tailed prairie dog (C. ludovicianus) and the Utah prairie dog (C. parvidens). The fifth species, the Mexican prairie dog, C. mexicanus, is only found south of the border. Of these, only two have conservation status: the Utah is “threatened” under the US Endangered Species Act and the Mexican is designated “endangered” by CITES.
Prairie dogs are mostly herbivorous, living off of leaves and seeds, though they sometimes also eat insects.
Prairie dogs are a “keystone species,” meaning that they have a disproportionately large effect in their ecosystem relative to their abundance. In fact, over 200 vertebrate species and a number of invertebrate species are directly or indirectly dependent on prairie dogs for their own survival. For example, over 90% of the diet of black-footed ferrets(Mustela nigripes) is prairie dog, and their numbers fell to a low of 18 individuals in 1986due to the decline in their food source.
Additional predators who consume prairie dogs are foxes, coyotes, badgers, eagles, and red-tailed hawks. Still other animals nest or shelter in prairie dog burrows, permanently or temporarily, including burrowing owls, mountain plovers, rattlesnakes, salamanders, turtles and rabbits.
Prairie dogs also have a significant effect on the plants in their range. Their selective foraging promotes a high diversity of plant species, which is appreciated by other browsing herbivores such as Bison and Pronghorn Antelope.
The burrowing activity of the prairie dog positively affects soil structure and health through aeration and by helping rainwater to percolate into it and be retained. This boosts the growth of flowering plants, which in turn benefits insects, birds and other creatures.
Social Life and Language
Prairie dogs are social animals who live in colonies that people call “towns.” Each town is made up of several to many groups. Each group is comprised of one to several adult females and zero to several adult males plus their offspring. Each group has its own territory which is staunchly defended by males and females alike.
Females are fertile for only about five hours on one day a year in the spring. They bear litters of 4-5 babies and, like cats, there is multiple paternity within each litter. That is, the female can be impregnated by multiple fathers. Though the young reach maturity in three months, about half of them typically die before reaching breeding age themselves.
Within groups, individuals express a variety of social behaviors including chittering, kissing, and in the case of black-tailed prairie dogs, monkey-like communal grooming.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is prairie dog language. Arizona Biologist Con Slobodchikoff has spent many years studying the alarm calls made by Gunnison’s prairie dog and his findings are fascinating.
First, Slobodchikoff noticed that prairie dogs seemed to be making different alarm calls depending on what predator was approaching. So he recorded audio of a variety of calls along with video of the escape responses that followed them. Then he played back the recordings in the field and was able to confirm through observation that calls consistently correlated with responses.
Next, using computer-generated sonograms, he measured the frequency and time values of the pattern of chirps within each call. This was painstaking work, as each individual chirp is only about 1/10th of a second in length. But the labor paid off.
What he found was that alarm calls describe individual predators based not only on species – such as coyote, human, hawk or domestic dog – but had additional signifiers for attributes such as size, shape and color. For example, differently sized and colored dogs got different calls. So did a human wearing a blue shirt versus the same human wearing a yellow shirt. The structures of the calls, then, are analogous to the nouns and adjectives of human language.
Even abstract shapes were greeted by different sounds, as Slobodchikoff found when he presented the prairie dogs with illustrations of a circles, triangles, or a colored oval. In these cases, the prairie dogs were describing to each other things that they had never seen before.
In a further parallel to human language, Slobodchikoff discovered that the same sounds were vocalized with different “dialects” or “accents” by Gunnison’s prairie dogs throughout their range around the Four Corners area. After examining sonograms of the calls of other species of prairie dog, Slobodchikoff tentatively concluded that they contrast enough from each other to constitute separate languages that would be comprehensible only to their native speakers. He compared this to the differences among human languages such as English, Spanish, French, etc.
Slobodchikoff described prairie dog language as, “at the present time, the most sophisticated animal language that has been decoded.”
The War on Prarie Dogs
The vast majority of the Europeans who participated in the invasion of North America did not have the same interest or respect for prairie dogs as Slobodchikoff. Violence has been the far more usual hallmark of interaction.
The main threats to prairie dogs have been agriculture, development and introduced disease. It’s also been common to shoot them for sport as a form of target practice.
Farmers have long killed prairie dogs because they forage on a wide variety of vegetation in their environs, which includes crops if they are planted in prairie dog territory.
Ranchers have targeted them under the false beliefs that A) domesticated animals break their legs in the holes (which has never been documented) and that B) in competing for vegetation with prairie dogs, domesticated animals suffer. This second point is highly debatable. No real evidence exists proving it. Furthermore, Bison, who have a diet similar to cows, suffered no apparent adversity from sharing habitat with the prairie dog for millennia. In fact, Bison have shown a preference for grazing on the edges of prairie dog towns.
As for development, it’s an unfortunate fact for the prairie dogs that they’ve simply been in the way of urban sprawl. They make their towns on flat, open spaces that are also ideal for houses, malls and parking lots. Prairie dog towns have also fallen victim to resource extraction activities such as fracking and oil-drilling. I didn’t find any references to such in my research, but solar and wind farms would also disrupt or destroy their habitat of course.
A large number of prairie dogs have died of the plague, which entered the US in 1900. Carried by fleas, it rapidly spread through many wildlife populations. Unfortunately for prairie dogs, they are particularly susceptible and 90-100% in a town die within two weeks of its introduction.
Human extermination of prairie dogs over the last century has been accomplished through land-clearing, firearms, poison, and explosive gas. These methods are variously quick or agonizing, which is to say more or less “humane”.
One of the most brutal methods is to gas them with aluminium phosphide, an inorganic compound that is lethal to most animals including humans. It is sold under various brand names such as Fumitoxin® Weevilcide® and Phostoxin®. Aluminium phosphide is what was used to attack the colony at Longmont, Colorado, on the morning of Friday, November 10th, 2017.
Tragedy at Longmont
Jeremy Gregory, a prairie dog activist who is executive director of Tindakan, a non-profit seeking solutions for ecological and social justice issues, was present for the mass killing. I contacted him via email and he described the scene and the situation thus:
“Four men working for Rocky Mountain Wildlife Services (not to be confused with the the Dept of Ag’s Wildlife Services but still as vile and heinous) set out to methodically place paper doused in fumitoxen in the homes of over 300 prairie dogs, just so a development company could be spared from humanely relocating them to another place. This colony resided on the edge of open space and habitat to an array of other beautiful and majestic species, some threatened like the burrowing owl and a family of bald eagles. There are also other bird species like falcons and hawks and of course, along with raccoons, fox, coyote… and the list goes on.
“Fumitoxin is a poison that, once ingested, causes that living being to bleed out, destroying the internal organs. It is an inhumane, slow and painful death. This poison has in fact been the contributor to the deaths of people, including two girls recently.
As bad as this is, it’s worse once you know the backstory. This wasn’t a case of prairie dogs being killed for an imminent construction project or agricultural endeavor, as poor as these excuses would be, given our over-built, over-farmed environment. No, apparently the motivation was, at least in part, real life hatred for prairie dogs and the humans who defend them.
Susan Sommers with Prairie Protection Colorado (PPC) filled me in on the details:
The City of Longmont actually has a law on the books that requires developers to “make a good faith effort” to relocate prairie dogs. Doing so is a part of the permitting process for approving new construction. The developer in this instance was Sun Construction, owned by Steve Strong and Andy Welch, who, as we shall see, are the villains in this tale.
Relocating prairie dogs is not easy. Challenge #1 is finding an appropriate chunk of real estate where the prairie dogs will be welcome. Challenge #2 is winning the approval of the County Commissioners of the receiving county. Challenge #3 is the official blessing of Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW), which requires that the developer submit a Wild To Wild Relocation application. Then there are the logistics of the relocation process itself, such as prepping the new spot and trapping the prairie dogs at the old one, etc.
PPC took care of challenge #1: They found enthusiastic hosts at the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge, which is actively seeking prairie dogs as part of restoring a healthy prairie ecosystem that could support the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets. Refuge staff “felt confident” that the commissioners of Jefferson County would sign off on the relocation since the refuge is on federal land, which would cover challenge #2.
Unfortunately, this left challenge #3 – submitting the paperwork – in the hands of Sun Construction. First they asked the city for a waiver from the relocation requirement. When the city refused, Sun pulled their application to develop the property, even though this meant giving up on a seven-figure project. This left them legally free to exterminate the prairie dogs.
Which they did, on November 10th, as told above.
Facebook Adds Insult to Injury
After the extermination, Prairie Protection Colorado published three different posts about the event on their Facebook page. These posts included Sun Construction’s publicly advertised contact information, including their phone number (303-444-4780), email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), and their web address (sunconstruction.com). Also named were Steve Strong and Andy Welch, whose role as owners is also a matter of public record.
Soon afterwards, Facebook deleted one of the posts and sent a warning to PPC that they would unpublish their entire page if they didn’t voluntarily delete any other posts similar to it. So PPC removed the other two posts and reposted new stories without the contact information, along with the following notice:
November 11 at 5:24pm
Facebook has required us to remove several posts due to concerns that they don’t conform to FB’s community standards. We have done so and apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused our followers.
Two days later, they added:
Sun Construction’s owners are watching this page, and they obviously reported our content to Facebook which resulted in our having to remove posts naming them as the individuals that called for this inhumane and horrific mass annihilation.
Here we see one of the serious issues with using Facebook for political activism. Although social media is de facto the public realm the way it is treated by its users, it is not so de jure, that is, according to the law. In the real world, Strong and Welch might not like having their names trumpeted in the town square, but unless a threat is being made against them or they are being slandered (neither of which was the case with PPC’s posts on Facebook), they have no legal recourse for complaint. They’ve simply got to grin and bear it. Of course, they can also make their case for their actions in the same square. These are basic principles of free speech in an open society (which, yes, is under assault).
Facebook, on the other hand, is a privately owned virtual space that can and does police the speech of its users who have no legal recourse except to its Terms of Service. Whereas US Constitutional free speech has been subject to nearly constant refinement and redefinition through the courts over the decades – and so it is fairly clear at this point what it encompasses, for better or worse – Facebook’s terms are a matter of a corporate caprice, if legally vetted. The terms are interpreted subjectively, by both people and by algorithms.
Yes, algorithms are subjective. Though the term sounds mathematical and connotes precision and even objectivity, any social media algorithm is purely a product of the prejudices, being written and tweaked by people.
All of this is to say that two human beings, Steve Strong and Andy Welch, who orchestrated the painful deaths of close to 300 animals – of a species that has been driven to the edge of extinction – successfully requested that they not be named as the responsible parties in a de facto public forum by appealing to that forum’s “community standards.”
One might wonder which terms the Facebook moderators felt that PPC violated. Did they “bully, intimidate, or harass”? Was it “hate speech”? Or “ misleading, malicious, or discriminatory”? We will probably never know, nor does PPC have a “right” to be informed.
In the real world, PPC certainly did none of those things, and Strong and Welch wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on. But Facebook is not the real world and in the realm of social media, there are no rights. Their “community standards” might sound reasonable, but in reality they are no more than mealy-mouthed nonsense, precluding honest discourse and enforcing authoritarian conformity. Note how much of the terminology is borrowed from the language of identity politics, but is here turned on its head and used to protect the actions of the oppressor from the critique of the oppressed. Disgusting.
In the case of PPC and Sun Construction, an unequal power dynamic exists; you have mainstream corporate owners on one hand and marginal, underfunded activists on the other. It is essentially impossible for PPC to “bully” Sun. The same dynamic exists between Facebook itself and its individual users, but to a much greater degree. Sun’s Strong and Welch are, in the end, just individuals and if enough of their community – including friends and family – told them to shape up their act, they just might do it. Facebook, though, is operatively unassailable.
Personally, I think it’s high time to ask whether social media is doing more harm than good. But that’s a topic for another time…
What motivates murder?
So why did Steve Strong and Andy Welch and Sun Construction kill all the prairie dogs? The way PPC set up the relocation deal financially, it would not have cost more than extermination. But money was clearly not their primary concern since they were willing to let go of a big project rather than take the simple step to save the animals. This is aberrant behavior for Capitalists. When you can’t count on corporations to follow the profit motive, how else do you explain their behavior?
“It is very clear that the killing of 300 animals, in broad daylight, in the middle of Longmont by a barbaric poison was meant as a message to advocates. After all, they are not even developing this parcel; there was no reason to kill these animals.”
Slobodchikoff surmises that anti-prairie dog sentiment is a relic of settler times, when the newcomers considered them “vermin,” merely a pest to eradicate, like weeds in a garden. I would certainly agree that “Settler Colonialism” never ended; today’s resource extractors are directly descended from yesterday’s rapacious, Indian-killing pioneers, in spirit if not in blood. The twisted belief that humans have “dominion over creation” is deeply ingrained in the current society, even if that belief is itself relatively recent in the long history of the human species.
What we see in the slaughter of these innocents in Colorado is the same thing that drives the annual massacre of Yellowstone Bison and the continued logging of Redwood trees. Yes, there is greed, but there is more than that, too. There is also naked hatred.
Tindakan’s Gregory had this to say:
“The science is overwhelming that in order to not just survive but flourish, we must find ways to coexist with nature. As Jacques Cousteau proclaimed; without man, nature flourishes yet without nature, man perishes. We have reduced the prairie dog species to less than 2% of it’s original habitat, this in turn adversely affects thousands of other species, which we need for our own survival.”
He is describing our society’s behavior as what it is: suicidal. One could surmise that this is the inevitable outcome of being ecocidal.
These are ugly times. Of course the US has never been pretty – there were no “good old days” for a nation founded on genocide and slavery – but its malice is metastasizing as it stumbles down the inevitable path of its decline. The mean are getting meaner; the angry, angrier; the crazy, crazier. We are living in an era of failing and falling, where institutions and individuals alike are degrading, devolving. What hope, then, is there for the prairie dog and all the other endangered creatures? I won’t guess, but I do know that not fighting for them is choosing spiritual death for ourselves.
Organizations defending the prairie dog:
* Prairie Dog Coalition (Humane Society of the US)
* “Prairie Dog Gone” chapter from Welfare Ranching