The slaughter of innocents

After prairie dogs invade a corner of her lot, a writer weighs the cost of eliminating them.

 

A prairie dog calls an alarm.

Two years ago, some neighbors asked me to participate in the extermination of a prairie dog colony that covered parts of our adjoining four fields. They assured me the rodents wouldn’t suffer when their burrows were gassed and backfilled. One of them compared the process to me killing the grasshoppers in my garden, but added, “If you don’t do it, it’s no big deal.”

I’m a practicing Buddhist: I find killing abhorrent even when necessary. I couldn’t see how exterminating a colony of hundreds of sentient beings was necessary.

Yet I understood my neighbors’ desire to eliminate these rodents. Their burrows can break the legs of livestock and damage tractors, and their fleas carry bubonic plague. When a colony’s movements are limited by geography, it can denude a field quickly. Our parcels were once part of a single ranch, and they had few if any prairie dogs when we bought them eight years earlier. Now, there were hundreds of burrows, and possibly thousands of prairie dogs.

Prairie dogs are an ecologically important species, however. In their native grasslands, they create unique habitat used by creatures ranging from burrowing owls to badgers, many of which die when a burrow network is gassed. They’re prey for predators from hawks to weasels.

After a month of deliberation, I heard a radio interview with author Terry Tempest Williams, in which she recounted Navajo elders’ objections to government-sponsored prairie dog extermination in the 1950s: “If you kill all the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for the rain.” Officials ignored the warning; hardpan, erosion and flash-flooding ensued. I told the neighbors no.

My refusal, it turned out, was a big deal. One neighbor quit speaking to me altogether. This year, a new neighbor offered to pay the entire cost of gassing my field, now the prairie dog epicenter of the neighborhood. She cited an injured gelding and her own auto-immune disease, saying, “I simply can’t afford to get the plague from them!”

Under pressure this spring, I revisited the question and sought advice from various people, starting with an email to Terry Tempest Williams. “Please do not kill the prairie dogs on your land,” she replied. She suggested that I instead educate my human neighbors about the importance of this keystone species.

I asked environmental philosopher Donald Maier, who responded with more questions than answers — something, he pointed out, one might expect when asking a philosopher a question. Were people always justified in clearing away the things — including living things — that stood in the way of their human projects, he asked? No! I thought. But then again, are they never?

Ranchers I’ve spoken with have tried various methods from flooding to shooting to truck exhaust. A retired farmer in my yoga class told me he used cyanide pellets; when the holes are stuffed with newspaper and backfilled, the pellets react with moisture underground and turn to gas, killing the animals within two minutes. Quick and painless, he said. Then he looked at his watch and added, “But two minutes holding a yoga pose. …” Sometimes that can seem like an hour.

Finally, my friend Dawn, an environmental consultant, pointed out that the field had never been part of the prairie dogs’ natural range: Before it was cleared for agriculture, it was a juniper forest. I would be removing the animals from an artificially created environment, not a habitat they had occupied for millennia.

Prairie dogs can’t live on irrigated land. One year, we got only three weeks of irrigation water, and that is likely when they became established on the north end of my field and contiguous fields. After that, the tenant chose not to water that end, providing ideal conditions for the colony to expand.

Dawn’s second argument concerned proper stewardship. If everyone involved keeps their land thoroughly irrigated when we have sufficient water, she said, we should never face this dilemma again.

Her final point brought it home. “Remember,” she said, “when someone planted your whole yard with invasive grass seed, and you can’t get rid of it 20 years later? You’re still really unhappy about that.” My heart sank. I had allowed an unwanted species to spread over my neighbors’ land, causing them to feel a constant, impotent anger that I know too well.

I felt a sudden shame for sticking to my emotional guns for two years, without determining and facing the specific ecological truth of this particular patch of land. The next day, I confirmed that the pest control company uses cyanide; they affirmed that it’s quick and painless. I told them to go ahead. Now, I need a tenant who will water the whole field, or I need to irrigate it myself. Or I need to sell the land. Above all, I need to never do this again. 

Rita Clagett lives and writes in western Colorado.

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