Part of LeFaive's own job responsibility is to raise healthy bison, and he too worries about having enough grass. It's been hard for him to warm up to prairie dogs, even though the biggest enemy of profitability with sustainably raising bison hasn't been prairie dogs but drought, potentially linked to changing climate.
Turner's face fills with a mawkish grin as he contemplates LeFaive's question. It's not tinged with defiance, but conviction. "For now, we keep growing prairie dogs. They have an important place on the prairie, the same as we do."
He understands why his neighbors don't like prairie dogs—they see them as stealers of grass that would go into the mouths of cattle. Turner even has resigned himself to the unpleasant reality that, in order to keep peace and continue his restoration, he needs to honor their request for lethal control. Turner isn't lacking in empathy for humans but he says the discussion of prairie dogs has been one-sided.
"You let the neighbors know, Tom, that we'll do our best to contain prairie dogs inside the border of the ranch. And if they should cross over, and the neighbors don't like it, then they can go ahead and control them. But God, I hate poison. You needlessly kill a lot of other things you don't have to kill when you put poison out there. Let them know that we want to work together on this."
Turner's support of rebuilding prairie dog colonies has been characterized by critics as a fetish. His name is openly cursed by some stockmen who have spent generations trying to make prairie dogs vanish. They would be happy to have the landscape completely cleansed of the native animals.
Once ubiquitous in the West, their colonies were dispersed from the Mississippi River to southern California, from the high plains of western Canada to northern Mexico. Five different species inhabited between eighty and one hundred million acres. Perhaps five billion prairie dogs existed when Lewis and Clark passed through the West. Lewis estimated the numbers as "infinite." Today they exist at less than 5 percent of their original numbers and range. Billions of dollars, marshaled in an arsenal of poison baits, traps, bullets, and habitat modification, have been flung at them with lethal effectiveness.
However, the poor state of agrarian economics can hardly be pinned on prairie dogs, though they've become a convenient scapegoat. "I think there is room out here to share the land," Turner says, his persistence motivated by an emerging scientific awakening of the niche prairie dogs fill. "And here's what we never hear in discussions. If prairie dogs were such a scourge to rangeland, then how did thirty-five million bison live side by side with them? Why could bison thrive and cows allegedly can't?"
Phillips says that what conservation biologists and Turner find compelling is the ecological dividends of prairie dogs from a biodiversity perspective. "The questions often posed are: What is the consequence of losing a species? What is the implication when you put one back?" Phillips asks. "The rationale you hear is that humans can get by with one less animal or plant. Or maybe a couple here and there. And, after that, maybe a few more. Let them go. Let them wink out, they say. What will it matter? And they ask, 'What value is there to any animal that isn't actively bought, sold or traded in the marketplace?'"
In the case of prairie dogs, their presence benefits dozens of other species, as food sources, as boons for critters that live in their dens, and as creators of specific habitat conditions Phillips goes on. "It's true. We don't eat prairie dogs, but other things do. If you wanted, I suppose you could justify the loss of many species until there are only weeds and commercial crops left. In some parts of the prairie, that's exactly what has happened."