Constant entertainment at this site. I called a local biologist, who seemed interested and receptive to our work, and informed me that the land manager would be thrilled to know I wanted to catch prairie dogs. When I arrived with my traps, I soon found out she was thrilled because she thought I might be able to “get rid of them.” Nope, permit doesn’t cover that. And, even if it did, I am not in favor of killing animals just because they get in your way (not a particularly progressive management policy). Fortunately, because the permit had already been issued and I was there in person, she agreed to let me conduct my research even if I wasn’t going to kill prairie dogs. She led me out to the colony, which I had been informed was next to a sheep pasture. But when we arrived at the sheep pasture, we kept walking. And then we climbed over the fence, into the sheep pasture. Yep, this was where I was going to attempt to catch animals without disturbing them– in burrows surrounded by almost no vegetation because it is grazed by sheep (and goats)– and without being disturbed myself by livestock chasing me as I leave a scent of grain behind.
It gets better.
As I begin setting up my traps in a portion of the pasture where I am assured no livestock will be grazing, I am informed that they are going to irrigate / flood the field within the next week. Pardon me? Flood the field? Oh sure, I can put the traps only up on the berms where they won’t get wet and wash away– if there are prairie dog burrows there. If not? I dunno, hope for the best? I reluctantly set up traps along the berms, and ask again where the livestock will be grazing next week. I double check a few minutes later, and again before I place each set of flags which mark trap locations. Before finishing, I obtain confirmation from the biologist that nothing will be grazing where we have set the traps (two local biologists helped me set up the traps, a task for which I am extremely grateful– they saved me many hours of work). My crew arrives the following week to find sheep and goats surrounding many of the traps, not separated by the electric fence as promised. The traps are in the same enclosure, the same portion of the pasture, as the livestock. I am relieved that no animals stepped on or in the traps, injuring themselves or the prairie dogs.
This land manager really does not like prairie dogs. “They just keep coming back!” she tells me. “Every year, we fill in their burrows, and every year they just dig them right back out.” Really? Is it so shocking that a burrowing mammal can dig!? …when my crew catches prairie dogs, she will come over in the hopes that something goes wrong and they accidentally kill one. She requests it. While someone tries to concentrate on drawing blood from a tiny femoral vein, she talks about the various ways we should kill each animal we handle. Later, she goes on to talk about creating a sustainable farm and somehow sees no irony in her two opposing views.
There are some advantages to trapping here. My crew successfully caught 25 prairie dogs in only four days (and the first babies of the season!). They donated an unexpectedly empty employee house to my crew for the week (with laundry, a microwave, refrigerator and 2 bathrooms!) in return for the ever-so-arduous task of bottle-feeding baby lambs at night. The site is beautiful and is close to places like Canyon de Chelly and Petrified Forest. The colony is accessible but protected from the public eye (where our research is likely to garner lots of attention– not necessarily a bad thing, but it is difficult obtaining blood from a tiny femoral vein with a 28 gauge needle while chatting about prairie dog life history). You get to be around lots of animals. People are willing to help (Setting up traps with 3 people was at least 3 times as fast!). And, of course, we are kept on our toes.