Editor's Note: Reprinted with permission from Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet, by Todd Wilkinson and Ted Turner. Published by Lyons Press, April 2013. This essay is excerpted from the chapter, "Ark of the Underdogs."
Swinging open a screen door, releasing the aroma of roasting pheasant from the kitchen behind him, Ted Turner steps out onto a prairie farmhouse porch to soak in a sunset. With a glass of wine in hand, he leads his guests on a short trek into the backyard. "I've got a surprise for y'all," he says, playfully.
Removing a set of binoculars from around his neck, Turner passes them over to his companions, then directs everyone's attention to a small divot in the South Dakota sod. "Oh missus praaairie dog," he calls. "Won't you come out of your hole and introduce us to your family?"
Mike Phillips grins from the sidelines. Next to him is Turner's youngest child, Beau, who is in his forties. "The boss," Phillips says, "is in his element."
At Turner's ranches in South Dakota, Kansas, and New Mexico, staff and biologists from a little-known private non-government organization, the Turner Endangered Species Fund, have brought prairie dog colonies back to life for Turner's enjoyment, and, more importantly, as a critically important step in restoring grasslands ecosystems on the Great Plains. What began as scattered pockets of prairie dogs numbering a few thousand individuals half a human generation ago have grown to nearly a quarter of a million.
While it's true that many agrarians on the high plains curse the native ground squirrels as vermin—they're considered competitors with grazing livestock—Turner reminds his guests at Bad River Ranch near Pierre, the state capital, that his fondness for the creatures is shared with one of America's Founding Fathers.
"How can you disagree with the opinions of a man credited with writing the Declaration of Independence?" he asks rhetorically.
After Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, he famously dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a mission to map the lands acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase. Mid journey, Lewis and Clark sent a gift, via canoe, back to Washington, DC. The living postcard—a prairie dog—provided no small amount of amusement for the naturalist chief executive. Jefferson reportedly even aspired to allow a colony to take up residence on the newly christened White House grounds.
Turner sees Jefferson as a forerunning ecologist. In 1797, Jefferson wrote, "For if one link in nature's chain might be lost, another and another might be lost, till this whole system of things should evanish [sic] by piece-meal."
"How many prominent business executives in America know what a keystone species is?" Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund (TESF), asks. "How many can boast that they are actively involved in restoring two of them—the prairie dog and bison?"
With the latter, Turner's bison herd today is 55,000 strong. Phillips says that his employer's fascination with prairie dogs is based on their individual characteristics and their role as crucial underpinnings in a huge food pyramid. "In a way, Ted and prairie dogs have much in common," he says, watching Turner tell his guests how important the gopher-sized rodents are. "To exercise their greatest influence, each must operate on a large scale."
Across a few rolling hillsides the next morning, we arrive at a prairie dog metropolis that dwarfs the quaint scene viewed the previous night behind Turner's farmhouse. Hundreds of conical mounds are embedded in the matted surface of Earth, the surrounding grass nipped short by bucked teeth to a level of manicured smoothness. It resembles a golf course putting green, but is less lush. Turner's neighbors would consider it a "moonscape" but to ecologists it's anything but.