By John Schlageck, Kansas Farm Bureau
Like the grass, wind, tumbleweeds, tornadoes and drought, prairie dogs have long been a part of the northwestern Kansas landscape. At the same time, farmers and stockmen have lived and thrived in this short-grass environment for more than a century.
In the early 1900s, the first landowners and settlers broke out some of the native, short-grass prairie to grow crops. Many introduced livestock into this region to eat the nutrient-rich grass and provide the world’s finest beef.
During this same period farmer and stockmen who lived in Logan County controlled the prairie dogs on their land so the cattle could remain productive. Left unchecked, prairie dogs breed, overpopulate and soon destroy the native buffalo grass. It is replaced by weeds or other plant species livestock find less palatable than the grasses that were replaced.
When the prairie dogs continue to thrive and reproduce the ground sometimes remains bare and the precious topsoil blows away in the wind. There are accounts of numerous days that are reminiscent of the Dust Bowl days of the ‘30s on some of this barren land.
Located in Logan County the region of grassland runs from the western edge of the county to the eastern border – approximately 40 miles long. It stretches nearly eight miles wide along this band – more than 280 square miles of grass. Buffalo, blue gamma, side oats and little blue-stem grasses thrive here on the High Plains – all favorites in prairie dog town.
Like many of his ranching neighbors, Logan County stockman Lynn Kirkham knows prairie dogs are vagabonds and cross roads, under fences and into new territory. He understands they continually move thus exacerbating the problem.
“Prairie dogs come in and establish their colonies, dig holes and eat the vegetation,” Kirkham says. “When the prairie dogs come in here and establish themselves it almost looks like a moonscape.”
In Logan County, an average cow/calf pair requires 10 acres of grassland. In a pasture with prairie dogs, this number can increase to 15 acres to feed each cattle pair.
“With prairie dogs on your land, you can’t run as many cattle because there isn’t as much grass,” Kirkham explains.
Another western Kansas stockman, Cameron Edwards, Logan County is a fourth generation farmer/stockman. Like so many early inhabitants of this part of Kansas, Edwards’ great-grandfather purchased their land to serve as a ranch and to raise cattle.
“We’ve tried to do everything we can to keep the prairie dogs out,” Edwards explains. “They eat the grass that our cattle should be eating. Prairie dogs are to grassland like weeds are to cropland.”
Not only do they compete for the grassland but they damage the environment and surrounding beauty of this unique High Plains landscape. So it comes down to those who do not want prairie dogs and ferrets versus those who want to use them in this region of Kansas.
What is the solution?
The key is to have a good control method for the prairie dog, and to keep the native grasses in place that also allow for livestock production.
“We’ve had prairie dog out here as long as I can remember and we’ve been able to keep them at a manageable population until now,” Kirkham says. “If everyone out here would control their prairie dogs, we wouldn’t have a problem.”
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.