Dr. John Hoogland, known colloquially around the world as "Mr. Prairie Dog," has devoted decades to researching the much maligned animals. Only at the end of the twentieth century did science begin to achieve traction in reversing the hatred toward prairie dogs that had similarly permeated attitudes toward wolves, grizzly bears, sharks, and big cats around the world.
"Turner's been a quiet prairie dog ambassador but his impact has been gargantuan," Hoogland says. "If nothing else, his interest causes other influential people to pay attention."
Turner bends the ears to win prairie dog allies among anyone he can corner. Tom Brokaw, the elder dean of the newsroom at NBC, is a proud product of Yankton, South Dakota, down the road. He's also been a Montana rancher, and a close friend of Turner's for decades. He has accompanied Turner to numerous prairie dog colonies and, at Turner's insistence, has become a convert to acknowledging the prairie dog's value. Brokaw isn't alone. Talk to a string of Nobel Peace Prize winners—Mikhail Gorbachev, Al Gore, Kofi Annan, or Jimmy Carter—and each has been regaled with tales about the prairie dog frontier.
Turner says he would gladly give any American president and the US secretaries of Interior and Agriculture a tour. "Ted can tell you anything you ever wanted to know about the prairie dog," Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, says. "Until I met Ted, I never would have thought that prairie dogs could make for an entertaining dinner conversation. Fortunately, he served us bison to eat and not prairie dogs. But I'm serious when I tell you that what I learned from Ted about the importance of these little animals has stayed with me."
The plight of prairie dogs can be extrapolated to other species, says Hoogland. "With bison, Turner's gone off the grid of the beef industry. And he's been able to show that the same private property rights argument used to subdue nature can be leveraged in reverse to pursue biologically informed management."
Ninety percent of ranchers in the West will tell you they hate prairie dogs, Hoogland says. "The two most common justifications they invoke are that prairie dogs compete with their livestock for forage, which is partially true, and that cows break their legs when they step into the holes of prairie dog dens, which is a tall tale based on Spartan anecdotal information and is, in fact, very, very uncommon."
He adds, "Ranchers Smith, Jones, and Nelson will tell you that prairie dogs are a scourge because that's what their daddies told them, and their grandfathers and great-grandfathers before them. It is a perception that got formed and reinforced over 150 years. Old beliefs die hard, even when they are misinformed. I don't expect that we'll see a major sea change in attitude over the next ten years but a more enlightened understanding is slowly taking hold."
He notes that while prairie dog colonies can reduce the amount of forage available to cattle, studies show that cattle, like bison historically, actually are attracted to forage around colonies at certain times of year, especially spring green-up. Plants there are not only nutritious and tasty, they are available to cattle earlier.
"When Ted speaks of prairie dogs' right to exist and points out their value, some call it blasphemy," Hoogland adds. "But you know what? Ted Turner is right in looking past that, and he has a lot of courage."
As he watches Turner saunter through a prairie dog colony in South Dakota, Phillips says the Great Plains has a reputation for being home to God-fearing people. "Sometimes the folks who would have you believe they are the most devout spiritual people are the ones least receptive to thinking about the extinction crisis," he says. "I find it ironic, and Ted and I have spoken about it, that they're willing to turn their backs on their God's creation. As conservation biologist Michael Soule says, 'If you love the creator, you have to love the creation. The two are inseparable.'