The Prairie Killers

This episode focuses on the ranchers of the Great Plains who continue their systematic destruction of wildlife, though such killing is considered by ecologists to be no longer necessary for the protection of livestock.

Today many of the Great Plains’ species are gone with the northern part of the region considered one of the “least protected places on Earth” according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Prairie Dogs
Not much has changed for the prairie dogs after the airing of this episode. The number of prairie dogs continues to decline as these animals are being shot and poisoned. Some states have instituted policies to combat this; for example, South Dakota banned shooting on federal lands for two to three months in the spring, and the National Park Service halted poisoning prairie dogs on its parks. Their loss impacts other wildlife such as the ferruginous hawks, who rely on the prairie dogs as food.

Black-Footed Ferrets
The black-footed ferret was considered endangered in 1967, and was declared extinct in the wild by 1974. However, a colony was discovered in 1981 in Wyoming, a captive breeding program then followed to repopulate the species. As of May 2008, there are approximately 750 ferrets living in western parts of the Great Plains. But prairie dogs and ferrets don’t co-exist without thriving populations of both–the reintroduction of one species means reduced numbers for the other.
* See an article outlining some of the problems.
* Nature recently included the black-footed ferrets in their film “The Loneliest Animals“.

In 2008, a deadly sylvatic plague infected the prairie dogs in Conata Basin in South Dakota. The plague was transmitted to the ferrets since the dogs were their prey. About a third of the 290 ferrets in the area have died. At the time biologists were vaccinating ferrets to combat the outbreak.

Coyotes continue to be killed although their population remains large; in South Dakota, their numbers are somewhere between 70,000 and 75,000. As the Humane Society says, “Coyotes have even learned to live in close proximity to human beings, within urban and suburban areas, and they are thriving.”

Once totaling just over 1,000 at turn of the century, the number of Bison have grown over the last hundred years. The National Bison Association says that there are about 225,000 bison in North America. Yet there are significantly fewer wild Bison, and wild herds only in four national parks; most are on farms, as the rise in Bison breeding has coincided with the increased popularity of Bison meat.