September 2017: My Dad and I and the Prairie Dog

~by Virginia Rhys-Anson, OFS

My dad and I had a difference of opinion on the future of the prairie dog. Usually very much like-minded–for I am very much like my dad—we didn’t disagree on much. But on the issue of the prairie dog, the line was drawn. The fence was built. Our views opposed. Me to save. Him to rid his land of those pesky varmints.

It is easy to understand the rancher’s disdain for, and Dad’s aversion to, the prairie dog, a critter that creates holes that could sprain or break the leg of cattle or horse. Ranchers grow to love their Shorthorns and Quarter Horses. Their animals become almost family to them. When one is hurt, the rancher will sacrifice much to heal and save it. A horse that pulls up lame is of little use for herding cattle.

The horse and the cowhand become as one unit, a close knit team. A cowboy’s horse being injured might almost be akin to his child breaking a leg. I understand. Perhaps Dad saw a horse or two sprain a leg thanks to those pesky varmints.

For my part, I’m all about saving our wildlife. I’m of the belief that we humans have usurped land from wildlife and are forcing them to adapt to us. I’m of the opinion that God made humans to be the most intelligent species of animals on Earth and the caretakers of wildlife. As such, human beings should be able to use their intelligence to try to find ways to co-exist with wildlife instead of trying to eradicate what they perceive as problems. Problems that we, by the way, created.

So thus the fence between our two views stood. I, however, never did share my view with Dad. I just listened to him, seeing the prairie dog through his eyes. I never wanted an argument with Dad. He was such a gentle soul. He was an old rancher who had seen and experienced a ton more cow punching than I had. Heck, I barely learned how to ride a horse, never mind chasin’ cattle. Who was I to infer that he was wrong to want to rid the pasture of critters that could break his horse’s leg? Some suburbanite daughter who never got a chance to live on a ranch. Besides, I didn’t have a solution that would topple our fence.

However, again in my defense, Dad may not have had all of the facts about the cute little prairie dog. Perhaps he had only the what-if fears of the potential danger that prairie dog holes could pose. But isn’t that just like human nature?  To fear without the facts?

Of course, at the time, I didn’t have the facts either. So we merely, unbeknownst to Dad, remained on opposite sides of the prairie dog fence.

It ends up that prairie dogs are of much more importance than we give the credit. They are actually an integral species to their ecosystem. Over 200 species of creatures use their tunnels, and they become food for a myriad of other species.

Their burrow digging actually serves to conserve the soil. It acts as a natural rototiller, which helps to support prairie plants and grasses. They, thus, provide cattle with more plants on which to graze.

Some contend that prairie dogs over-consume grasses, depleting the supply for cattle. On the contrary. They only consume about 4% to 8% of the grassland vegetation. Their foraging actually enables nature’s ability to grow grass, thus providing food for a diversity of wildlife. Their miniscule consumption of prairie vegetation has not been shown to adversely affect the well-being of cattle. Nature knows how to care for her own.

Being indispensable to their ecosystem, if prairie dogs are allowed to be hunted at will, if their population was greatly depleted, it would adversely affect the populations of species that depend on them. If they became extinct, other species are likely to follow suit. So the prairie dog is integral to its habitat.

Now had I known how essential is the prairie dog, and had I shared this with Dad, we may have been able to reach a compromise understanding. But I didn’t, so we didn’t.

Poor Dad never got the chance to defend his stance on the prairie dog. He never knew that I disagreed ‘cause I wasn’t going to argue with a seasoned cowboy. It wasn’t that important that we agree anyway. Both of us, in the end, are right to a point. Prairie dogs do have a right to live as nature designed, and horses do have a right to gallop through a pasture without breaking a leg. Man I miss my dad.

The information on the prairie dog was obtained from Conserve Nature


Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.


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