|Groundhog Day: Punxsutawney Phil’s Cousins May Be Forecasting a Fate Worse Than a Long Winter|
|Thursday, 31 January 2013 00:00 | Written by Marita Prandoni | Blog Entry|
Prairie dogs are the eyes of the community.
Groundhog Day is most famously celebrated in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where almost always, Phil retreats, forecasting six more weeks of winter. But it is west of the Mississippi where Phil’s cousins, the prairie dogs, may well be offering a more dire prediction—about the fate of humanity. This is why there have been efforts to establish Prairie-Dog Day to bring attention to the plight of these creatures, under attack by ranchers and developers who consider them pests.
In the Rocky Mountain West and out on the range, the smaller prairie dog includes five species: the black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison, Utah and Mexican. These highly social and cute critters live in colonies or “towns” that can stretch across hundreds of acres over grassland and sagebrush steppe habitat.
The Mexican and Utah prairie dogs are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act. Relatives of squirrels, they are also diurnal—clever enough to be out and about by day. While some species are dormant for short cold periods, only the white-tailed prairie dog of the northern Rocky Mountain states is a true hibernator.
Prairie dogs have a range of complex vocalizations or “barks” that are considered some of the most sophisticated of all animals in the wild. Different sounds warn of various predators, including coyotes, hawks, ravens, eagles, owls, badgers, foxes, snakes and ferrets. Yes, they actually distinguish between an eagle and a hawk. Terry Tempest Williams, in her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, references the research by Constanine Slobodchikoff, who—from researching these remarkable creatures for more than 20 years—says they also communicate a predator’s size, color and speed of travel.
Williams also observed a colony over two weeks and described what she interpreted as prairie dog prayer. She described it this way: “I fell in love with this one prairie dog who would stand at the edge of her burrow in the evening and face the setting sun and put her paws together and stand in that posture for 30 minutes. In the morning she’d do the same thing, facing to the east toward the rising sun.”
Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species because they are prey to so many others, such as those mentioned above. The vegetation and burrows they maintain provide a rich ecosystem for to up to 140 species of animals including large herbivores, reptiles, amphibians and the burrowing owl. The black-footed ferret, America’s most endangered mammal, can’t survive without the prairie dog.
Over the past four decades, ranchers and property-rights zealots have waged war against prairie dogs using a pernicious biocide called Rozol, which like DDT kills not only the prairie dog, but also its predators and other species that happen upon their poison-laced habitat. It was registered for black-tailed prairie-dog control in Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas under the most recent Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In May 2009, it was approved by Obama’s EPA for Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and North Dakota. The Logan County Commission in western Kansas, according to Ted Williams in an opinion piece in High Country News, has incited the public against prairie dogs and “nuked” ferret and prairie-dog habitats with Rozol.
Ultimately the question is: Do humans really want to walk this planet without the company of other amazing creatures, some of which are only a fraction of our size but every bit as fascinating and important? If so, how long will we be able to walk without them considering how interrelated all species are to the environment that sustains us? And do we realize that the biocides we recklessly apply might just give rise to powerful superbugs—infinitesimally tiny viruses and bacteria—that may get to be the ‘deciders’ as to whether or not humans will continue to exist on this marvelous planet?
It is doubtful that a groundhog’s shadow can accurately forecast the weather. But in the case of the West’s five prairie-dog species, their retreat will likely mean something far worse for humankind than one longer winter.
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