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Ted Turner Defends Prairie Underdogs [Excerpt]

An excerpt from Todd Wilkinson's latest book looks at the media magnate’s almost evangelical efforts to save the prairie dog—a passion that has earned him converts to his cause as well as the enmity of his fellow ranchers



Elena Cizmarik/Ted Turner Enterprises

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.

Scientists, in fact, call this a glimpse into "rewilding." As a private citizen, Turner's prominence in the movement of rewilding—given his two million private acres of land, second most of any citizen in the US— is unmatched. Indeed, his portfolio of properties serving as havens for imperiled species has earned him a reputation as a kind of modern-day Noah.

TESF has been a major force in influencing the way conservation is approached in America by building public-private partnerships. And it has attracted attention around the world, in some ways borrowing from NASA's mantra of "faster, better, cheaper." The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently called it a "Recovery Champion." "Recovery Champions are helping listed species get to the point at which they are secure in the wild and no longer need Endangered Species Act protection," the Fish and Wildlife Service's national director Dan Ashe said.

Phillips, a former Fish and Wildlife field man who helped bring wolves back to Yellowstone National Park, notes that government agencies can be well intended but they are challenged by bureaucratic regulation that prevents them from being light on their feet. In recent decades, government wildlife officials also have been paralyzed by lawsuits brought by both environmental organizations and resource extraction groups.

As Ashe of the Fish and Wildlife Service notes, some of Turner's ranches figure prominently at the center of a strategy to recover icons, including wolves in the Rockies, red-cockaded woodpeckers in the Southeast, Chiricahua leopard frogs, bighorn sheep and bolson tortoises in the desert Southwest, and the rarest land mammal in North America, the black-footed ferret.

Black-footed ferrets were once written off as extinct. But by reestablishing prairie dogs—animals that ferrets need to survive on his lands and allowing government to have a ferret captive breeding facility on his land—Turner is providing four of the ten venues the Fish and Wildlife Service says it will take to achieve a minimum baseline of biological recovery.

For Turner, being an avowed "eco-capitalist" is about having a corporate social consciousness. His intent, he says, is to challenge the misguided perception that species preservation comes at the expense of prosperity and human livelihoods. He calls it a false dichotomy. He has heard fellow property owners charge that having endangered species on their land will run them out of business or impinge their liberty. And there is also a widely held view among environmentalists, he says, that unless government steps in and protects species from extinction, many animals will not survive.

"I am committed to proving them wrong," he says. "Species survival should not have to depend on public lands or private lands. An animal should not have to die or live or be considered important depending on whether it's on the Endangered Species list. That's wrongheaded. Conservation isn't a choice between nature and prosperity. It's a combination of both, put together."

Notes E. O. Wilson, who has visited Turner's flagship ranch in Montana, the Flying D, which has all of the major large mammals that existed there millennia ago, "Out of his many achievements, the most important may be the proof that capitalism and environmentalism can be joined to major humanitarian effect."

Back at Turner's ranch house, he meets with Bad River manager Tom LeFaive. A jolly man and a biologist by training, LeFaive asks Turner to speculate on when he might finally declare mission accomplished with his prairie dog proliferation project. Ranchers in the area who despise the critters have been wondering. They don't want to be the recipients of Ted's animals spilling over onto their land—especially animals they've spent so much money and heritage trying to annihilate.

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."

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.'

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