Hundreds of prairie dogs relocated to new homes
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Most mornings Jessica Van Woeart and her team go to work armed with peanut butter. She is a wildlife biologist.
They use peanut butter to help trap prairie dogs. They go to neighborhoods across rural pastures in southern Utah. They go to move the prairie dogs far away from people. The people have been under siege from the small burrowing rodents for years.
Van Woeart's team is doing something that was pretty rare and difficult until last year. That is when a federal court judge took away endangered species protections for the Utah prairie dog.
Activists say the ruling could hurt protections for similar animals all over the country.
The Utah prairie dog is the smallest of five species. It lives in underground colonies in the southern part of the state.
They are thought to be key to the ecosystem. But their numbers fell as land was cleared. It was to make way for farming and ranching. It was also cleared for housing. The prairie dogs were listed as endangered in 1973.
Having federal protection helped the prairie dogs. The number of dogs grew to about 28,000. That was as of this spring. And it is according to state tallies. The prairie dogs were upgraded to threatened.
But the animals felt anything but rare to locals. They were not happy that federal rules kept any moving or trapping of prairie dogs to a minimum.
"They are really cute little things. But they really cause so much damage," said Sharon Peterson. She is a Cedar City resident. Her backyard used to look like a sea of the little squirrel-like animals.
A group of residents sued in 2013. The ranks of prairie dogs near Peterson's house fell after U.S. District Judge Dee Benson's ruling.
It became legal to trap the prairie dogs. This was under the state's new trapping program.
Heading up the trapping is Van Woeart. She is a New Jersey native. She has endless energy. A sign on her office wall reads "Keep Calm and Love Prairie Dogs."
On most mornings her workers bait wire rectangular traps with peanut butter. They work in and around Cedar City. It is about 250 miles south of Salt Lake City.
They check them every hour or so. And they are usually not let down. They catch more than 100 dogs some days. The creatures are weighed and tagged after they are caught. Then they are taken for an hour-long drive.
Their new homes are ready ahead of time. They are a system of fake burrows. They are made from irrigation piping and plastic boxes. The piping and boxes are buried underground.
The workers hold the traps over the new burrows. Then they open the door. The dogs rush inside.
Recently the brown-eyed animals nibble on bits of zucchini. They sound their clicking bark to their new neighbors. They live on public land. It is located about 25 miles outside of Cedar City. It is different than the suburban burrows they have left behind. The land is higher and drier. There is different food. They also have new predators.
About 2,500 animals were caught this summer. They were turned loose in a series of similar sites.
The workers leave food and water. They try to keep the highly social animals together. It is done to may the move easier.
Many will not survive in their new homes. About10 to 15 percent of the creatures typically stay at the new sites after a year. That is according to Keith Day. He is a state wildlife biologist. He leads the prairie dog program. Though some leave, many die.
Moving an animal from its natural setting causes a fairly high death rate, Day said. Still trapping an animal and moving it is better than killing it. That is what residents who were fed up with having so many prairie dogs did.
"People have been taking care of their own problems," Day said. "If we can put a prairie dog out on federal land and get a colony out of it, that is better than letting somebody shoot it."
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did residents need to sue to have prairie dogs removed?
Write your answers in the comments section below