Outlaw Prairie Dogs Find Refuge with Rancher

Kansas Rancher Larry Haverfield i i

Larry Haverfield has worked on this ranch close to Oakley, Kan., nearly his entire life. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
Kansas Rancher Larry Haverfield

Larry Haverfield has worked on this ranch close to Oakley, Kan., nearly his entire life.

Jeff Brady, NPR
Prairie Dog i i

Prairie dogs clear away grass and other plants from around their burrows. A colony can clear a prairie, making it difficult for ranchers to feed their cattle. Ken Hammond/USDA Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Hammond/USDA Photo
Prairie Dog

Prairie dogs clear away grass and other plants from around their burrows. A colony can clear a prairie, making it difficult for ranchers to feed their cattle.

Ken Hammond/USDA Photo

Since the late 1800s, ranchers and farmers have tried to rid the West of prairie dogs. The rodents strip grass in a wide area around their burrows so they can have a clear view of approaching predators. A few thousand prairie dogs can strip down a field of corn or wheat seedlings in no time. And a recent Department of Agriculture study concluded that prairie dogs cost ranchers money because they eat grass that otherwise would go to cattle.

But a battle brewing in Logan County, Kan., is as much about wildlife as it is about farming and ranching. A captive breeding program for the Black-footed Ferret — which likes to eat prairie dogs — is dependent on large prairie-dog colonies where the ferret can live and hunt.

So rancher Larry Haverfield has allowed prairie dogs to occupy more than 6,000 acres of his cattle ranch. He says he doesn't much like prairie dogs, but he says they help support other wildlife — hawks, badgers, swift foxes, coyotes, rattle snakes and Black-footed Ferrets — that all rely on prairie dogs for food.

Just about everyone in agriculture-dominated Logan County is opposed to Haverfield's plans. His neighbors do not share his enthusiasm for wildlife. After all, previous generations spent decades trying to get rid of the wildlife so their domestic cattle could graze freely. And they're even less enthusiastic about his plans to release an endangered species — which come with all kinds of regulations — on his property.

"There's not enough profit in ranching today — or farming either — that you can afford to have part of your property taken by something that is not gonna produce nothing for you," explains Burt Summers, a retired rancher.

Haverfield says he's doing what he can to keep the dogs off other people's property. But Logan County says that's not enough; the dogs must be killed. And if Haverfield won't do it, they will.

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