- Associated Press - Sunday, August 10, 2014

SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. (AP) - Early in the morning, as the sun spreads across the valley, some of the first to peek out and see it are prairie dogs. They stand almost in salutation on the top of their mounds, watching the sun rise or people pass by.

The brown mammals are not actually part of the dog family, but of the rodent family, and like most rodents are considered pests, the Scottsbluff Star Herald reported (https://bit.ly/1ouvOFP ).

Matt Anderson, a wildlife specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, said the small animals live in colonies and can wreak havoc on grasslands.

“The biggest issue is loss of grass for a landowner,” he said. “Once we get prairie dogs out of an area, it takes about 16 years before the rangeland grows back to where it was before.”

Anderson works in the Scotts Bluff, Banner, Morrill, Cheyenne and Kimball counties that contract with the USDA Wildlife Services to exterminate the prairie dogs.

In five years, Anderson has treated more than 2,450 acres, where the total damage to the ranchland was more than $349,000.

Treating for the rodents is a bit like treating for household rodents. Anderson puts out bait to kill the prairie dogs. He drives an ATV along the holes and mounds, putting out zinc phosphate poisoned oats.

“We use extreme care to not spill any of the chemical and put about five pounds on an acre,” Anderson said. “We can cover a hundred acres in about four hours, so pretty quickly.”

Since the oats are not poured down the holes, but along them, the ATV can move pretty quickly around the grassland.

Anderson takes his job seriously, having grown up wanting a career with wildlife. He began his career in Iowa with a county conservation ward and spent the summers spraying weeds.

“I went to South Dakota State University for my masters in wildlife and fishery sciences,” he said. “While in college, I worked as part of a land crew building fences and spraying weeds.”

When Anderson graduated from college, he spotted a job opening at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and jumped on it.

So he’s no novice when it comes to nature. He knows nature has balances, but sometimes has to be helped along.

“We are in no way looking at population control for the prairie dogs,” Anderson said. “We’re just helping to relieve the landowners.”

A colony can grow by 69 percent a year if it is not treated. The larger the colony the more he likes to return and do follow-ups to make sure the rodents are all gone.

The colonies can pop up wherever there is grassland, Anderson said. In the spring and fall when the pups are weaned they will disperse to find food if a colony is too big for the grassland.

“They can travel up to 20 miles following railroads, rivers, highways and other major corridors, to find new places to live,” he said.

The damage the rodents do is not just to the grasses, but if the tunnels collapse can cause injury to cattle, horses and other grazing animals, Anderson said. Some have even dug under buildings, where there could damage the foundation or cause the building to sink.

He understands there are people out there who consider what he does wrong.

“I suppose when you get outside the area and people don’t understand or have an investment in the grassland, they might be concerned,” he said. “Around here most people are concerned with grass loss. I don’t hear too many people complain about killing them.”

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Information from: Star-Herald, https://www.starherald.com


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