Every place I have lived in the West, I’ve been fortunate enough to locate or stumble upon the rare or secretive creatures native to the locality, be they cougars, wolves, grizzly bears, lynx, otters, fisher, mink, pine marten, or badgers, even crossing paths with the shadowy wolverine on four separate occasions. So it was with confidence that I set out across eastern Montana and Wyoming in search of the amicable, diurnal rodents that call the prairie their home. Surely they must be thick out there. How hard could they be to ferret out? It’s not like I was searching for Bigfoot this time.
I combed hundreds of miles of what should be prime prairie dog habitat, scouring gravel back roads amid over-grazed cattle allotments and between functioning and defunct oil rigs, but found almost no sign of them. What I did find were prairie dog ghost towns and a lot of lonely, parched and denuded ground desperately in need of the vital cornerstone of the treeless grasslands.
Frustrated, I stopped at the headquarters of a national recreation area and asked the park service spokeswoman why there were no prairie dogs anywhere in the vicinity. She replied with a shrug, “Uh…Target practice?” Apparently, unregulated “recreational shooting opportunities” (glib game department jargon for their year-round open season on prairie dogs) have taken their toll. No one at that government compound could direct me to a single place where prairie dogs still existed, yet this vanishing keystone species is left unprotected by ESA safeguards. What will good ol’ boys shoot at when they run out of prairie dogs, marmots or ground squirrels—each other? Okay, fair enough, but let’s hope they don’t hit anyone who doesn’t deserve it.
Driving back home to southwest Montana on I-90, I spotted a sign for Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park. As the name implies, there is an active prairie dog town there—one of the last of its kind. The trivial excuse for a park, located right along the interstate with a busy railroad just beyond, is, oddly enough, a surprisingly decent place to see them living otherwise undisturbed. But with the constant whirr of the freeway punctuated by locomotives dragging eternal black streams of overflowing coal cars, it’s also a good place to get a glimpse into what’s happened to the world of the prairie dogs and why there are so few left of their kind.
The preceding was excerpted from Jim Robertson’s book, Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport