I awoke this overcast morning late, after the rain stopped, and flicked on the radio as I went into the kitchen to make coffee and feed the dogs, “prairie dogs” the first words I heard as I faced the wide world. Terry Tempest Williams was speaking to Michael Toms in a New Dimensions rerun. They covered a lot of ground, from the complexity of prairie dog communities to Rwandan genocide, both of which topics were on my mind.
My neighbors across the canyon are urging me to participate in a prairie dog extermination which would involve dropping pelleted gas down some of their holes and covering them all with dirt. The humidity underground once the ventilation is blocked causes the pellets to open, releasing a gas that will kill them every one, but cause them no pain or suffering. (I wonder how they know that?) I’ve been contemplating their request, and the exterminator’s estimation that there are about 200 prairie dog holes in my part of our connected fields.
I understand their desire to eliminate these rodents from their properties: their burrow holes pose a serious threat to livestock, horses or cattle, who can step in them and break a leg; they can also damage tractor wheels and axles when cutting or baling hay. Our land parcels were once part of a single ranch, and had apparently seen the exterminator before they were sold off separately; there were few if any prairie dogs there when we all bought. Also, when limited by surrounding human occupations, their colonies can denude a field of its plants in fairly short order. They reproduce at a rodential rate, and they spread like a weed.
On my north forty, there was a thriving colony before I left for Virginia a decade ago. A year later when I returned, zero. I don’t know if someone poisoned them while I was gone, or if one of their natural pathogens, bubonic plague, erased them. They’re still not back. Before I bought that land, the owners managed them with a .22. Against my deeper inclination, I’ve already given the rancher who farms the hayfield currently in question permission to let his kids shoot the prairie dogs. I don’t like it, but I want to be a good neighbor. Besides the risks to livestock and equipment, any of us could contract plague from one of their fleas. We all have dogs. All of them have children.
However, prairie dogs are an ecologically important species. A University of Nebraska publication says prairie dogs “create unique patches of habitat in extensive grasslands… used by an abundance of wild creatures… Over 200 species of wildlife have been associated with prairie dog towns. Prairie dogs are prey for a variety of predators such as hawks, eagles, badgers, coyotes, foxes, and weasels.”
Biodiversity Conservation Alliance adds, “nine species can be considered to be dependent on prairie dogs and their colonies (black-footed ferret, burrowing owl, mountain plover, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, swift fox, horned lark, deer mouse, and grasshopper mouse).” Of these nine, four live here year-round and a fifth, the ferruginous hawk, overwinters.
As Tempest Williams talked about them, my longstanding resistance to eradicating them resurged. She recounted Navajo elders’ objections in the fifties to government officials: “If you kill all the prairie dogs there will be no one to cry for the rain.” They did; hardpan, erosion and flash-flooding ensued. A Hopi elder told her that prairie dogs taught the Hopi how to create a ventilation system in their kivas. She remarked on their social structure, and their 200-word vocabulary, persuasively conveying their value as “a profound intelligence on the planet,” interconnected with us all.
Gassing the prairie dogs costs about three dollars per hole. I’d have to spend more than $600 to commit an act I find morally and ecologically repugnant. I hear that one neighbor has offered to cover half the cost. Until I heard Terry’s interview this morning, I was ready to pay the other half. Now I can’t muster the will to do even that. But I don’t want to be the bad neighbor who won’t cooperate. It’s a true moral dilemma. I don’t know what to do.
Terry Tempest Williams went on to talk about her experiences in Rwanda. (I recently read In My Home There is No More Sorrow by Rick Bass, in which he writes movingly of his trip there with Terry a few years ago, so the subject was fresh, if disconcerting.) Her theme in the interview was mosaic, which is how she was able to tie together the subjects of community, prairie dogs, mid-20th Century nuclear tests, and survivors of the Rwandan genocide in one conversation (and one book). I am left on this cold, windy May morning feeling fragmented and vulnerable, yet oddly optimistic. What’s my piece to carry, to be, in the mosaic of my community?
“I used to think that bearing witness was a passive act. I don’t believe that anymore. I think when we witness both beauty and sorrow, something shifts in us… and as a result of that expansion of the heart and mind, our acts become something different, we respond to the world differently.” ~ Terry Tempest Williams