To regard any animal as something lesser than we are, not equal to our own vitality and adaptation as a species, is to begin a deadly descent into the dark abyss of arrogance where cruelty is nurtured in the corners of certitude. Daily acts of destruction and brutality are committed because we fail to see the dignity of Other. —Terry Tempest Williams
Across the prairies and gas fields of the American west, as extractive industries find their way into some of the most remote and wild corners of lands that have known little industrial intrusion, and as roads and buildings and towns follow them, a complicated game of balancing the needs of wildlife and our alleged current and future energy needs plays itself out. A recent victory was won, of sorts, for the sage grouse, a stunningly beautiful ground-dwelling bird that doesn’t like humans much at all, and development even less. Yet the sage grouse is only one of many animals threatened across this region. One of the most important to dryland ecologies might surprise you: the playfully named prairie dog.
Often cast as a villain that makes holes cattle step in and other nuisance behavior, the prairie dog is far more important ecologically than its detractors would admit. Known as a keystone species, prairie dogs, actually a rodent in the squirrel family, provide aeration of soil and aid water retention through their tunneling, making life easier for plants and pollinators. Their burrows provide homes not only for themselves but also ground-dwelling birds, reptiles, and other mammals. Part of the food chain, prairie dogs provide sustenance for an incredible diversity of wildlife: burrowing owls, mountain plovers, ferruginous hawks, harriers, coyotes, swift foxes, badgers, and most importantly the black-footed ferret, a specialized hunter that depends entirely upon prairie dogs for its existence.
The decline in health of western lands prophesies the decline of the prairie dog. When Lewis and Clark crossed this area there may have been 5 billion prairie dogs in the region. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that today their range has dropped from perhaps 100 million acres to roughly 2.1 million or less, with a corresponding drop in wildlife diversity and ecological health. Beyond the ecology, as Terry Tempest Williams showcases in her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World, prairie dogs live in a strongly linked community, distinct as individuals. They even have a language that has been shown to contain more than 100 specific words and a grammar of its own. As the emerging science of non-human animal ethology teaches, when we stop to consider animals as individuals we open ourselves to a world much wider than we’ve ever imagined.
On a more disturbing level, another name for prairie dogs is “Pop-gut,” a label given by those who enjoy shooting the animals in the belly and watching them explode in a cascade of blood. If bullets truly made humans better we would have had a more perfect society centuries ago. Taking a life for fun doesn’t create better people, only diminishes them, and disrespects a life taken for such a shallow reason.
Beings who have taken care of the land since the Pleistocene, so small but so vital, that congregate and scurry and burrow as extended families, spend their brief lives on a specific patch of ground, that know and most probably love that ground above and below as most of us will never intimately know any similar space could teach us a lot about how to live in place if we’re willing to get low to the ground with them and learn their language—certainly more than those extractive industries that only come and take, and leave desiccation when the profit-taking is done. And as we do for the canine companions who’ve shown us fidelity for the eons of our association and whose name they share, we should accord prairie dogs much more loyalty for all their service to our wild world.