MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. The conflict currently raging in Logan County over the compulsory poisoning of prairie dogs and the reintroduction of the Black-footed Ferret has a rich context.
In the 1940s, Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac and one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, argued for a "land ethic" that would expand our definition of "community" to include soil, water, plants, and animals. Such an ethic, he wrote, would "change the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it." He knew as he wrote that he was up against an opposing view, as evidenced by the soil erosion, water pollution, and plant-and-animal extinctions that were increasing, not decreasing, in his day. Nevertheless, he did everything he could to replace human self-centeredness with a morality sensitive to the rights of non-human creatures to exist and (in some areas) to exist in their natural state.
Leopold's embattled view was nothing new. The newspapers from the early days of Kansas are full of protests on behalf of wildlife. In 1872, the Hutchinson News
editorialized against "the wanton and wholesale destruction of buffalo," while in 1875 the Ellsworth Reporter carried this item: "A Mr. Reese of Bourbon County, trapped 920 prairie chickens in five days. He ought to be caught in the jaws of a powerful steel trap and kept the remainder of his life." In 1879 in central Kansas, after a similar mass killing of upland birds, a group published the following statement: "We the undersigned, farmers of Empire township, give notice to hunters that are in the habit of shooting chickens and quails upon our farms, that we will not allow such wholesale slaughter as has been practiced in the past few weeks." A letter to the Ellsworth Reporter in 1879 criticized "a certain class of gentry, who seem to live for nothing else but to ramble the earth and kill and destroy, wantonly, everything which comes in their course." There were those who thought it right and proper, even the will of God, that the native wildlife be exterminated--but there were also those who saw wildlife as God's creatures and therefore fellow creatures, deserving of life. These conflicting views gave rise to contradictory outcomes: hunting seasons that were established but not enforced and a bill to stop the slaughter of bison that was passed by the legislature but vetoed by the governor.
So what's happening in Logan County today is part of an old, old story, though with some new and ironic twists. Five ranchers there--modern-day versions of Aldo Leopold--are reestablishing significant components of the original short grass prairie. Larry and Bette Haverfield, Gordon and Martha Barnhardt, and Maxine Blank have allowed prairie dogs to return to their cattle ranches, along with the creatures that depend on them for habitat or food, such as Burrowing Owls, Swift Foxes, Golden Eagles, and Ferruginous Hawks. On their 10,000 acres of jointly managed land, these ranchers are also hosting the reintroduction of the Black-footed Ferret, a weasel-like predator that lives on prairie dogs. The Black-footed Ferret disappeared from Kansas 50 years ago and for a long time was thought to be extinct everywhere. On September 26, 1981, however, a ranch dog in Wyoming brought a dead Black-footed Ferret home, alerting the world that the species still existed. That remnant colony became the source of a successful captive breeding program, providing 74 ferrets which between 2007 and 2011 were released in the prairie dog colonies on the Haverfield/Barnhart/Blank complex.
This lifeline for the barely-surviving ferret thrilled conservationists but appalled the Logan County Commission and the Kansas Farm Bureau. Citing a 1901 law allowing counties to eradicate "varmints," the County insisted that the ranchers destroy their prairie dogs. Twice over the objection of the landowners, exterminators hired by the county went onto the ranchers' land and began poisoning the prairie dogs--with the costs to be added to the ranchers' tax statements. Court injunctions forced the exterminators to stop, but the County Commission appealed those decisions, while the Farm Bureau filed an amicus brief, arguing that the County's right to exterminate animals prevailed over the landowners' right to conserve wildlife. So far, the courts have supported the landowners, but Logan County and the Kansas Farm Bureau continue to oppose them fiercely, most recently in statements to Kansas legislative committees in which they painted prairie dog conservation and ferret reintroduction in the direst terms. The anti-wildlife opposition is ironic, as the endangered Black-footed Ferret helps to control prairie dog numbers, while forced eradication of prairie dogs could eventually lead to the listing of prairie dogs as threatened or endangered, too. Meanwhile, the Kansas Farm Bureau, which frequently proclaims the sanctity of private property rights, somehow keeps a straight face while arguing that ranchers in Logan County have no right to accommodate prairie dogs on their land.
The grass on the Haverfield/Barnhardt/Blank complex is lush, feeding Florida steers as well as prairie dogs. The ranchers there are proving that it is possible to manage land for both native wildlife and beef production. The abundant antelope, deer, foxes, eagles, hawks, owls, songbirds, prairie dogs, and ferrets on the property delight those who live and visit there. However, people of authority and influence continue to demand eradication. As long as that's the case, the "land-community" in Logan County will be a community under siege.