May 7, 2016

Prescott Used to Have Countless Prairie Dogs


For a rodent, they are undeniably cute. But to farmers and ranchers they're a horrible pest. Where there are prairie dogs, agricultural output decreases 25-85%. (*1)

Yavapai County once had 1.5 million acres "infested" with prairie dogs. (*2) When Prescott's airport was first being laid-out, workers "went up and down both runways with shovels leveling the mounds and filling up the holes made by the hundreds of prairie dogs that infested the field."(*3)

So, what happened to them?


Mass rodenticide!

"It must be remembered," the newspaper wrote, "that these rodents destroy a vast amount of forage, which, if saved, could be used for the production of beef and mutton. In many cases, the prairie dogs permanently injure the range by eating the roots of plants which bind the soil and prevent erosion. In many localities, the destruction of plant life has been caused by extensive washing away of the soil after the summer rains." (*4)

"To ranchmen and orchardists over a large part of the west...they are only too well known through the damage they do and the difficulty of eradicating them. In Northern Arizona the damage they do is often keenly felt." (*5)

THE WAR BEGINS:

Prairie dogs were all over Yavapai County. There were "towns" around Jerome Junction, (*6) Lonesome Valley, the Prescott National Forest, (*7) as well as Chino and Williamson Valleys.

In spite of having a brain smaller than a walnut, the dogs proved to be both clever and tenacious. Even with the best efforts of the federal government, it took decades for prairie dogs to disappear in Arizona.

The Yavapai Chamber of Commerce formally asked the US Department of Agriculture to help with the eradication in 1910. (*6) In spite of endless promises and prognostications, come 1932, they were still working on it. (*8)

First, poisoned grain was immediately distributed. But only some of the dogs would try it and when they got sick and died, the rest of the colony would be skeptical of it. (*9)

This was proven in 1912, when a biologist for the US Dept. of Agriculture visited Prescott for a week "during which time he saw nearly all the farmers in this district and advised them as to the best known methods for the destruction of prairie dogs." (*5)

He suggested immediately employing a recipe that included clean plump oats, strychnine, bicarbonate of soda, saccharine and flour. When this proved less than effective, the biologist noted that "a completely successful poison for exterminating prairie dog towns has yet to be discovered," but he advised them to repeat the process again in ten days. (*5) Results were mixed.

In July 1915, work began in earnest to remove the prairie dog from the Prescott National Forest by the US Agriculture Dept. A party of three men with camping gear, saddle horses and a team and wagon carried a tank with the poison into the woods and grasslands. It was a nearly 4 month campaign that continued again in the spring of 1916. (*10) The results of this campaign were underwhelming.

The wet winter of 1915 brought a new resident to the Prescott National Forest: the white-tail deer.


In November of 1916, a new technique was introduced. The County Agricultural agent held campaigns on individual farms and several school houses; "all of these meetings being well intended." (*11)

He suggested that "by putting out clean barley one day and following this the next day with poisoned bait, they found the dogs were killed over a large area. The cattle owners are especially interested in this (development)." (*11) This proved more successful.

Seven months later, it was reported that "ten to fifteen thousand prairie dogs are being killed each day at a cost of a quarter of a cent apiece." It was added that "the government wishes to aid all farmers and stockmen who are suffering losses from this pest." (*12)

THE WAR ESCALATED:

Still, the prairie dogs didn't give up the fight. The Northern Arizona Fair of 1920 featured an exhibit on how to get rid of the rodent. (*13) In March, 1921, a thousand quarts of poison was given away free to alfalfa farms to cover 5000 acres. (*14)

In November, 1921, an additional, lethal step was added:
"All of the holes had to be baited with clean rolled barley. After a period of two days, the holes were baited with the poisoned rolled barley...Two or three days after the holes were baited, they were all filled with dirt, so that in the gassing operation the workers could tell which holes the dogs were actually working in. Two days more were allowed for the dogs which remained after the poisoning to dig out. Then the open holes were (gassed) with carbon disulphide and stopped up again. Unless the ground is dry, the gassing operation makes a 100% kill." (*15)
"Several kinds of poisoned bait (had been) used, but the best results were secured with the poisoned barley by changing the standard formula a little." (*15)

In 1924, 267 stockmen and farmers continued waging war, killing over one million prairie dogs in Yavapai County alone. (*2)

However, the work would continue for over 8 more years before Yavapai County and Arizona would be declared free of prairie dogs.

THE CONSEQUENCES:

Biologists describe prairie dogs as a "keystone" species, which is a polite way of saying that they are on the menu of many other animals. These include coyotes, eagles, mountain lions, hawks, bob cats, snakes; in fact, there are 150 different animals that eat prairie dogs. (*16)

Black-footed Ferret
Easily, the most adversely affected animal from the loss of the prairie dog was the black-footed ferret, which is the principle predator of the prairie dog. When the prairie dog population was high, the ferret population was also numerous. But the loss of the dog led to the black-footed ferret being declared extinct.

THE HOPE:

Fortunately, officials were wrong about the prairie dog being eradicated completely in Arizona. Some survived around the Seligman area. It turns out that a colony of black-footed ferrets survived in Wyoming and were discovered in 1982. These were bred and in 1996 they were reintroduced to the Seligman area. (*17)
Black-footed ferret hunts a prairie dog
Will prairie dogs and ferrets be reintroduced elsewhere in Arizona? Currently there are no plans. Ranchers still hold a degree of political sway in Arizona.

However, as Arizona grows in population and cities buy ranches to obtain their water rights, perhaps someday in the distant future...


Tourist Tips:
Do you enjoy hunting? The Arizona Game and Fish Department offers a great many opportunities including occasionally offering prairie dog hunting permits! There are also big game opportunities including elk, mountain lion, black bear, big horn sheep and buffalo.

CLICK HERE for hunting and fishing information from AZ Game & Fish!


SOURCES:
(*1) Yavapai Magazine. September, 1924; pg. 16.
(*2) IBID. pg. 21.
(*3) Daily Courier 8/22/1999 pg. 6a col. 1
(*4) Prescott Journal Miner, 7/17/1913 pg 7 col 1
(*5) Arizona Journal-Miner 4/6/1912 pg 3 col 1
(*6) Arizona Journal Miner 8/23/1910 pg 4 col 3
(*7) Arizona Journal Miner 8/1/1911 pg 4 col 1
(*8) Prescott Evening Courier 9/21/1933 pg 2 col 2
(*9) Yavapai Magazine December, 1916 pg 15 col 3
(*10) Prescott Evening Courier 7/15/1915 pg 3 col 4
(*11) Yavapai Magazine November, 1916; pg. 17 col. 2