Hundreds of prairie dogs relocated to new homes
Most mornings Jessica Van Woeart and her team go to work they are armed with peanut butter. She is a wildlife biologist.
They use the peanut butter to help trap prairie dogs in subdivisions across rural pastures in southern Utah. Then they move them away from residents who 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's when a federal court judge removed endangered species protections for the Utah prairie dog.
Activists say the ruling could weaken 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. Thought to be key to the ecosystem, their numbers dropped quickly as land was cleared to make way for farming, ranching and housing. They were listed as endangered in 1973.
With federal protection, the population recovered to about 28,000 as of this spring. That's according to state tallies. They were upgraded to threatened.
But the animals felt anything but rare to locals. They chafed under federal rules that kept any moving or trapping of prairie dogs to a minimum.
"They're 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 creatures.
A group of residents sued in 2013. After U.S. District Judge Dee Benson's ruling, the ranks of prairie dogs near Peterson's house fell under the state's new trapping program.
Heading it up is Van Woeart. She is a petite New Jersey native with boundless energy. A sign on her office wall reads "Keep Calm and Love Prairie Dogs."
On most mornings her technicians bait wire rectangular traps with peanut butter in and around Cedar City. The growing city is about 250 miles south of Salt Lake City.
They check them every hour or so. And they're usually not let down. Some days, they catch more than 100. After they're caught, the creatures are weighed and tagged. Then they are taken for an hour-long drive over hills covered with sage and yellow grasses.
Their new homes are prepared ahead of time. They are a system of man-made burrows made from irrigation piping and plastic boxes and buried underground. The workers hold the traps over the new burrows. Then they open the door and let the dogs scurry inside.
On a recent day, the brown-eyed animals nibble on bits of zucchini or sound their distinctive, clicking bark to their new neighbors. They live on public land about 25 miles outside of Cedar City. It's different than the suburban burrows they've left behind. It is higher and drier, with different food and 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 and try to keep the highly social animals together to ease the change. But many won't survive in the new environment. After a year, just 10 to 15 percent of the creatures typically remain at their new sites, said Keith Day. He is a state wildlife biologist who oversees the prairie dog program. Though some leave, many die.
"When you pick an animal up out of its natural setting and you move it to a new location ... you can expect a fairly high mortality rate," Day said. Still, he said that trapping an animal and moving it is better than the lethal methods that fed-up locals used to employ off the books, while federal rules held sway.
"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's 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