Cowboys and Prairie Dogs

Krista Bateman drove through the low rolling hills of South Dakota hauling a pickup load of live prairie dogs. It was late June, already hot and always dry. Besides the dust, the air carried a mix of rural scents—sage, cut hay, manure from a clutter of ranch buildings she’d just passed. The fence posts on either side of the road whamped by—whamp, whamp, whamp—the sound of their passing amplified by the open pickup windows. Beside her sat her dogs, a tall golden retriever and a short basset hound. Their tongues hung out, dripping on the seat.

Every few miles, she rolled through another small town and stirred up the local dogs. Never failed. One whiff of her cargo was all it took. Her own dogs popped their heads out the passenger side window and gave answer. She thought of it as a reverse alert. Instead of humans and their canines sending her prairie dogs into a frenzy of alarmed barking, it was the other way around—for once.

At a corner tavern with a row of cattle trucks in front and a TV satellite dish in back, she turned off the main highway onto a side road. She passed a grocery store, a gas station, a sporting goods center offering cash for guns, a bank operating out of a trailer house, a hamburger stand, a Laundromat and a scattering of houses. Only the post office was new.

Krista could sum up the whole scene in a few simple phrases: This was cattle country fallen on hard times—America’s heartland in more than one sense. Cattle had been big business, she knew. Cattle had fueled the post-Civil War economy spurring the building of railroads and pushing the United States to the verge of world leadership. Cattle was American mythology, cowboys and range wars. Half the towns in South Dakota dated from that era and still clung to the hope of an upturn in beef prices. As if that would solve the problem. Nobody in America’s heartland liked to talk about the real issues namely overgrazing or “the need to restore the natural balance.” In short, she and her prairie dogs were not welcome here.

Conventional ranch land wisdom saw the prairie dog as an “animal weed” to be poisoned. She couldn’t count the times she’d heard some leather-faced cowboy drawl, “But you can’t gallop a horse across a dog town. You’d break the horse’s legs.” As if any place a horse couldn’t gallop, couldn’t be any good! Besides that wasn’t true. She’d never found any actual evidence of cows or horses breaking their legs in prairie dog holes. If that happened at all, it was rare. Krista and her prairie dogs had been scientifically disproving “cowboy folklore” for seven years now.

Five miles out of the last town, she slowed and began checking the names on the mailboxes. She was looking for “Ted Dunbar” and his “Double Bar D Ranch.” Instead discovered that she was being followed. A green Chevrolet station wagon and a brown Ford Bronco slowed when she slowed, sped when she sped. She slapped the top of her steering wheel and swore. She wished that once, just once, that cowboys would not act like cowboys.

All she wanted to do was observe prairie dogs and make field notes. It wasn’t the kind of job you got rich doing, but she enjoyed it. No more than that, she was good at what she did. Single-handedly, she’d rewritten the book on prairie rodents. Was it too much to ask to be left alone to continue her work? The answer to that was obviously a resounding “yes.” Every cowboy in the country seemed to think she was a threat, or at least the ones in the cars behind her.

Three quarters of a mile farther on, she found the name she wanted on a dented, oversized post box. She turned the pickup off the pavement onto a rutted lane. She hadn’t met the rancher who had donated his land to “the continued study of prairie dogs.” He had been described to her as a long-time rancher newly concerned about prairie ecology.

According to the story she’d been told, he read an article about her and her work and came to the university one day wanting to meet her and give his land, a thousand, six hundred and fifty acres to her research. Most of the people in her department were amazed and envious of her good fortune. She didn’t see it that way. She knew she ought to be pleased and appreciative, but the last thing she wanted was to find herself beholden to a rancher. She wished he’d find something else to do with his munched-over land. She’d been fighting ranchers and cowboys all her career.

She was guest lecturing in California when she heard the news. After that she was scheduled to do three months fieldwork in Texas. She hadn’t liked the idea of having her plans changed. It was only after she was told that there wouldn’t be any other support for her or her work that she agree to accept the gift. After that, she put off meeting her “benefactor” as long as she could. That had been the only expression left to her to show how she felt—not that it mattered. University officials never turned down sizable donations regardless of the attached conditions. Part of this deal required her to establish a prairie dog town on the donated ranch. She didn’t think prairie dogs outside national wildlife refuges could be protected, and looking in her rear-view mirror, she suspected she was about to be proved right. The two other cars had made the turn and were still following.

Now there was no avoiding any of this.

Ahead she saw a two-story wood frame farm house with a wide front porch, its sides white but weathered, its chimney slightly askew. Behind the house, tucked below and a little to the right, she saw an old barn with a new corrugated roof, a circular grain bin, a corral, and what looked like a shop for fixing farm equipment. Her clue was the truck parked in front with its hood up. What she didn’t see was an obvious place to make her stand. She was going to have to create one.

Krista reached under her seat and located her tire iron.

At the same time, she drove into the front yard of the farm house, whipped the pickup around, and backed it over the lawn and up to the house right next to a corner between the main structure and the porch that jutted out six feet. She was outnumbered. By pulling the pickup close to the house, she made it impossible for anyone to open the back and get to the prairie dogs without first moving the truck. She turned off the engine and tossed the keys behind the seat for good measure. Then she stepped out, her dogs tumbling after her, to face her foes. She took up a position beside the cab, the door of the pickup open, the tire iron in sight.

She heard the back door of the farm house squeak open and slap shut. A black Labrador appeared first, then a tall, trim gray-haired man wearing dark blue Levis and a plaid western style shirt. He looked so much like her father the last time she or her mother had seen him that for a second Krista almost forgot the cars coming up the hill.

“You Ted Dunbar?” she asked.

He gave a glance at the pickup parked on his lawn and said, “Yeah, that’s me. Take it you must be the little missey with the prairie dogs.”

“The little missey with the prairie dogs!” she groaned under her breath.

Her father had been a lawyer—handsome, respected and dependable, until he started dressing like a cowboy, talking like a cowboy, drifting like a cowboy.

“Looks like we got company,” Dunbar said in slow, even cowboy cliché.

She nodded. She wanted to shake her head because she really couldn’t believe she’d gotten herself into this situation, but nodding was the appropriate response.

Meanwhile, the Chevy and the Ford Bronco pulled into the yard and raised a cloud of dust. More dogs spilled out of them. The dogs, six of them now, circled and sniffed each other, front and rear. The men, three in the Chevy and two in the Bronco, climbed out. They were young, not much older than the students Krista taught at the university when she wasn’t doing research. Whatever their ages, they’d all learned to spit tobacco, hook their thumbs behind their belt buckles, squint, and stand bow-legged. They leaned up against their cars, eyed the dogs and sized her up.

The old rancher turned on a spigot, picked up his garden hose and started watering a couple of rose bushes stuck in the bare ground beside his porch steps.

Fine time to tend to the garden, she thought.

While he watered, he squinted at the group, and said, “Jeff Holmgren? That you?”

The driver of the Bronco, a hefty, red-faced Swede said, “Yeah, Mr. Dunbar, it’s me.”

“Thought your pa was putting up hay today. Don’t he need your help?”

“The swather broke down. The dealer had to send for a new part.”

“Sorry to hear that. Who you got with you?”

“Just some of the boys.”

“Out of your way, aren’t you? Not that I mind. I don’t get much company. But, the thing is, because I don’t get much company, I don’t keep much beer around.”

“We ain’t looking for beer. We came to talk to this university professor since it seems you’ve gotten senile lately and won’t listen to reason.”

“Who told you that?”

“Everybody says it.”

“That I’m senile?” Dunbar asked. “I believe that’s news to me.”

“Either that or stupid,” Jeff Holmgren said. “So we’ve come to make this professor understand that we don’t need her prairie dogs here. We figure she might listen to sense. Especially if we explain things in a way that nobody can mistake.”

Dunbar shrugged. “Well, I never stood in the way of talking good sense.” He waved them in Krista’s direction. “Talk all you want.”

A lump rose to her throat. So much for western chivalry, she thought.

“You really a professor?” one of them now asked her.

She nodded.

“You don’t look like a professor,” another added.

She shrugged.

She was five foot four inches tall, a hundred and twenty pounds, blond and blue-eyed. All that added up to “cute,” but she didn’t have time to be “cute.” That’s why she kept her hair extra short, never used make-up and only rarely wore anything other than oversized gray t-shirts and warm-up sweats from the university athletic department.

The one called Jeff said, “Why you want to turn a bunch of prairie dogs loose around here anyway? You don’t think we got enough troubles without that?”

Krista knew this game. Prairie dogs did it all the time, fighting over turf, posturing, bluffing, tough-guy staring and stalking. Trouble was, when that failed, things usually exploded into gnashing, dust-swirling brawls, and she couldn’t help noticing the rifles hanging from the gun rack in the brown Bronco.

Either she faced them down or . . .

She looked Jeff in the eye and said, “What’s the matter with prairie dogs?”

“What’s the matter with prairie dogs?” he repeated.

She nodded. “Name something a prairie dog has ever done to you.”

“Me, personally?”

“Yeah,” she answered. “Otherwise I suggest you pick on something closer to your size. Or, maybe, you think you have.”

That produced a chuckle that ran through the whole group. Jeff looked around at the others. He wasn’t amused.

“Maybe you ain’t heard,” he said. “We use prairie dogs for target practice around here.”

“Why?” she asked.

Jeff looked at her like she was loony. “OK,” he said, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with prairie dogs. They tear up the ground and eat all the grass. Maybe it’s hard for a professor to understand, but out here we like to feed the grass to our cows, not some nest of barking rats.”

Krista took her time, thinking if she explained it slowly maybe she might get through. She said, “The holes prairie dogs dig help soil formation by raising deep minerals to the surface and allowing air and water to penetrate. Also the prairie dogs add their own feces to the richness. They eat some grass, but it’s less than three per cent.”

“Feces,” one of them said latching onto that single word and not a single idea. “You mean, ‘shit,’ don’t you? That’s what your whole project is, shit.”

“Yeah,” someone from the Chevy station wagon added, “And when your prairie dogs overrun our ranches, then what? We supposed to be glad for their shit?”

“That’s not likely to happen. I have thirty-five coteries. We’re planting them dead center on Mr. Dunbar’s ranch. That’s where they’ll stay.”

“Until next year, maybe,” Jeff said. “Then a whole damned mess of them will come over the hill to my dad’s place and start a new dog town and after that someplace else, Charlie’s place, maybe.” He indicated one of the others with his thumb.

Krista shook her head. She’d heard this before. Ranchers tended to think prairie dogs bred every two months, had litters of forty-five, and migrated in groups of five thousand. Before she’d begun studying them, no one could have refuted those fantastic claims. No one knew. Her studies showed something entirely different—two years, three pups and infrequent, solitary migrations. But these cowboys didn’t want to hear that. They already knew everything they wanted to know. They’d lived here all their lives. So had their parents and maybe their grandparents. That supposedly made them experts.

As a group, they began to move toward her, closing in. Krista backed, keeping herself between the truck and the oncomers. She whistled for her dogs. The old rancher who had posted “No Trespassing” signs on every other fence post all the way up to his house, stood there with his hose running water. Doing nothing.

Then Jeff reached around her and pulled back a corner of the tarp covering her pickup, exposing several cages. Barking, a prairie dog alert, went up. It was so explosively sudden, he jumped back.

In the same instant, Krista saw the old rancher flick his hose over a couple of the cowboys’ dogs wetting them. That and the prairie dog noise started them yapping and snapping. Krista grabbed her basset hound and threw her into the cab of the pickup, or she’d have had her ears chewed off in the dog brawl that ensued. The others, too, suddenly found themselves busy pulling their dogs back, holding them.

When the dust cleared, the old rancher dropped his hose, called his own dog, and drawled, “Now, Jeff, I’m thinking we can do better than these here dogs. How about if I promise to personally come and poison any prairie dog that wanders onto any of your ranches and we leave it at that?”

Jeff smiled a broad self-satisfied grin. “We don’t need you to poison them, Mr. Dunbar. We’ll do it. You can’t watch these here prairie dogs night and day. We’ll get them sooner or later. You’ll see.”

Fighting, Krista realized, wasn’t what this bunch had wanted. The threat was what they’d come to deliver. The threat was the important thing because, of course, they would get the prairie dogs. All they needed was fifteen unguarded minutes in which to scatter a little poisoned grain.

“The government has outlawed the use of Compound 1080,” one of the others said over his shoulder. “But that don’t meant we can’t get it or something just as good.”

That comment was followed by general grousing about taxes and politicians and “damned lawyers” and “damned environmentalists.” The cowboys loaded their dogs into their cars. They stirred up another swirl of dust as they left.

When they were gone, the old rancher turned off his hose and wiped his brow with a red handkerchief. Then he turned to Krista and said, “You create this must trouble everywhere you go?”

“Only when I’m not wanted,” she told him.

He nodded. “I understood it was the other way around. I was told you didn’t want to come here, that you had some objection to using my ranch for your work.”

“That’s because it won’t work,” she said. “For the reasons they gave us.” She pointed in the direction of the departing cars.

“They scare you?” he asked. “I mean, that’s what they wanted to do, but I didn’t think they’d succeeded.”

“What can I say? I like my prairie dogs too much to let them be poisoned.”

While he considered that, he made friends with her dogs, patting their heads and scratching their ears. “What are their names?” he asked.

“Yankee and Mugs,” she replied indicating first the retriever and then her basset hound.

“My black lab is called ‘Howler,'” he said, “but I meant the prairie dogs. They told me when you arrived you’d have two hundred or more and you’d have a name for every damned one of them.”

Krista shook her head. “Not really a name, just a way of identifying them.”

She pulled back more of the tarp exposing half the cages. Another chorus of barks punctuated the air. When the prairie dogs had settled down some, the old rancher came close. She noticed he walked on the outside edges of his boots, cowboy style. He bent near the top row of cages and peered in.

She said, “Each dog has been marked with black dye in a different place so I can keep track of its activities. This one’s ‘Front Leg.’ That’s ‘Black Butt,’ ‘Black Back,’ ‘Wide Stripe.’ ” She pointed the animals out one by one.

He hemmed.

Cowboys always hemmed.

“I number the females: that’s thirteen, twenty-one and eighteen in that cage. Each cage contains a coterie, a male and three or four females.”

Dunbar sucked his teeth.

Cowboys always sucked their teeth.

He said, “You need to identify them so you can make notes. I read about that—how you make these elaborate notes.”

Krista reached into the cab of the pickup, pulled out a clipboard, and showed it to him. It held ten pages marked off in columns and filled in with various marks—a system of descriptive shorthand she had devised herself. She noted wake-up times, eating habits, matings, fights. She explained it to him as best she could in a few minutes. She wanted him to understand the time and detail. If all of that could be wiped out in a few minutes . . .

Ted Dunbar listened carefully. Then he shook his head. “You’re in a strange line of work.”

He hadn’t added, “for a gal,” but she could supply it.

She said, “I’ve been told that.”

“I imagine you have.”

A silence followed as Ted Dunbar looked her over and she watched him looking. She couldn’t tell if she satisfied him. She didn’t care. She didn’t need him. She’d gotten this far without any help from anybody. In fact she didn’t understand what gave this sixty-three year old cowboy the right to insist on making himself part of her work.

He turned away and patted the top of one cage. “They’re better looking than I thought. I was expecting gophers or something that looked like gophers—something only a university professor could love, no offense.”

“No offense taken,” she answered.

He drew breath and let it out slowly. “Well, then I guess we better get to it. I mean, it can’t be good to leave them all caged up. I’ll show you the place I prepared for their new home.”

Krista shook her head. “Can’t you understand? This won’t work. Just because you own a ranch doesn’t mean you can do anything you want with it, including keep prairie dogs.”

“Won’t hurt for you to at least look at the place,” he said. “I’ll get my hat.”

What could she do? While Dunbar was getting his hat, she pulled the truck away from the house and waited. He returned with a sweat-stained Stetson. Then with no further discussion, he got in the passenger side of her pickup and pointed the direction.

The dogs wanted to come, of course, but she couldn’t release rodents or even discuss releasing rodents and have dogs running around at the same time. She commanded them to “stay.” They did, wagging the tails they were sitting on, but staying all the same. Dunbar’s dog was more of a problem. He tried to follow the pickup. Dunbar hung out the window and yelled, “Howler, go home.” He repeated that three more times as Krista rounded the outbuildings and started across the range. When the dog finally gave up and went back, Dunbar pulled his head inside the pickup and said, “Your dogs are better behaved than mine.”

“Have to be,” she answered.

“Why’s that?”

“It’s a function of my having given the retriever an unfortunate name. I can’t see myself yelling, ‘Yankee, go home.’ Can you?”

Dunbar laughed. It was a full, fat laugh, uninhibited. Then he said, “Do you ever not talk like a professor—’function of my having given an unfortunate name’—that’s almost as good as ‘feces'”

Krista stiffened. He’d enjoyed watching her squared off against those cowboys. Why not? He was one of them, even if he was momentarily pretending otherwise. As if to prove that point, he opened a can of Copenhagen and took a pinch.

She drove out onto the rolling bench land along a barely visible road, the sage growing up between the tire tracks. A mile, or maybe more, from the ranch house, he pointed to a cleared ten acre site. It had been seeded. The new fescue was just long enough to wave in the wind. There was a year round creek to the far side and brush cover surrounding it all—prairie dog heaven, she had to admit to herself. It was just as she’d specified.

“That what your little critters need?” Dunbar asked.

“Fine,” she said “but I still don’t know . . .”

He wouldn’t let her finish. “Well, I hoped you’d like it. Hoped it’d be OK. Don’t know much about the prairie dogs myself. I was hoping I might learn something. Of course, I plan to mostly stay out of your way when you’re working.”

“Oh, yes, but . . .” she started again.

He climbed out of the truck as if he hadn’t heard her and started walking to the middle of the open area.

There was nothing to do but follow. The sun was getting hot. The grass brushed against her pants. A hawk flew overhead. She shifted her attention and watched the bird circle.

“We could create some cover until they build burrows,” he told her.

The hawk wasn’t the problem. “Those cowboys will be back.”

Dunbar answered, “Yeah, probably.”

Krista asked, “What did you have in mind to do about that?”

Dunbar considered her question a long time. Cowboys did that. They could drive you crazy making you think they hadn’t heard or something. Then he said, “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Krista sighed. Was it too much to ask a cowboy to complete a whole thought if he had one? “Wait and see what?” she asked.

“What happens.”

Now there was a great plan! she thought. It ranked right up there with the old cowboy ethic of not drawing first but expecting to outshoot the other guy anyway.

“We’ll worry on the Fourth of July weekend,” Dunbar said. “Then Labor Day. Maybe Thanksgiving. Those boys are all ranchers. They’ve got work to do. It’s only when they get together drinking and bragging that we have to be concerned.”

The old problem of rowdy cowboys on Saturday night. When was cattle country going to grow up? she wanted to know but didn’t say so.

“It’ll be all right,” Dunbar added. “We’ll just wait and see.”

She said, “I’m not sure that will be enough.”

“My grandfather settled this land,” he said.

Krista braced herself. This was the flip side of the laconic cowboy—the yarn-spinning cowboy whose stories wound round and round fancy excuses and long explanations and never, ever connected with the subject.

“When my grandfather settled this land,” he started again, “he kept a diary—faithful as could be. Mostly he wrote about the weather and the cows calving and what he ate for breakfast. But once in awhile he’d put in a sentence or two describing the land here. It took me a while to figure it out because the part about the land never sounded quite right. The more I read, the more confused I got. Then I realized what it was. The land used to be different.”

Krista waited for him to continue, but he didn’t. She glanced over at him and his whole expression had taken on a far-away look. She didn’t have time for whatever nostalgic journey he was on. Her prairie dogs were probably getting hot. She said, “Different?”

He nodded his head and seemed to return to the present. “Yeah, different—miles and miles of grass that stretched as far as anyone could see. I went down to the library and read other diaries from other settlers. They saw the same thing—grass everywhere they looked—all across most of Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, parts of Texas. Now I’m a cattleman. I’ve raised cows all my life, even when they nearly broke me, the market was so bad. Grass everywhere is what a cattleman dreams about, but I’ve never seen it myself. All I’ve ever seen is scrub brush and tangles of tumbleweeds—inedible forage. So I asked myself why? I started asking myself that question twenty-five years ago. The experts—guys who had been to college and supposedly studied the problem—all said the same thing, namely that the range had been overgrazed. But if I didn’t graze an area, it’d turn to more tumbleweeds and scrub brush—not grass! Besides I read that there used to be more buffalo on this range than all the cows we got now, so I figured it couldn’t be just overgrazing. But I couldn’t figure it out. I even entertained the thought that the Indians had put a curse on the land or something like that. Then one day I came across this article you wrote about your prairie dogs, and there was my answer plain as could be.”

He paused and stood there shaking his head as if he was still amazed.

She studied him. At the same time, she was puzzled, wondering what she’d written that had so interested him. She didn’t write for ranchers. Ranchers had wiped-out ninety per cent of the prairie dogs that had once inhabited the Great Plains. When she wrote, it was to challenge such extreme eradication.

“Which article did you read?” she asked.

“All of them,” he continued. “I sent to the university for a copy of everything you had ever written on prairie dogs. That’s when I noticed you were advertising for volunteers to help you sit and watch these dogs each summer. So I applied to be a volunteer. Only the people that run your department said I was too old. They said you sat out in the rain and cold and wind twelve to sixteen hours a day all summer making your notes, and I was too old to do that, as if ranching ain’t a lot the same.” He chuckled and shook his head some more. “Anyway I figured if I couldn’t come work with you and the prairie dogs, maybe I could get you to come work with me and bring them prairie dogs. That’s when I offered the university my whole damned ranch.”

A cowboy gesture—big and bold, she thought.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded, dog-eared copy of an article she’d written for the Sierra Club magazine. He read to her from her own words, “Prairie dogs eat seedlings and young sprouts of tumbleweeds and scrub brush. After long periods of selective feeding, prairie dogs tend to increase the short perennial grasses, blue gama and buffalo grass, creating their favored habitat—uninterrupted fields of grass. It was precisely that grooming of the range lands that had prompted Lewis and Clark to describe one dog town as being ‘like a bowling-green in fine order’.” He paused, folded the article and put it back in his pocket. “Maybe I was a little high-handed about getting you and your prairie dogs here, but I’m an old man and everything I’ve known and loved is disappearing. Cattlemen all around me are going broke. So I figured if I was ever going to see those miles and miles of grass, if there was ever going to be any hope for this way of life, I had to get my dog colony started, didn’t I? I mean, if the little critters created all that grass for the buffalo, they can do it for cattle, can’t they?”

“A symbiotic relationship between prairie dogs and buffalo has yet to be established,” she said.

At the time, she marked his typical rancher concern for his “way of life.” His way of life and that of all the ruffians west of the Mississippi who rode around in four-wheel drive Broncos with loaded gun racks had created most of her prairie dogs’ problems

But he wouldn’t let her alone. He made a wide sweep with his hand and said, “Come on, missy, admit it. You’re onto something important.”

She shrugged, “Only time will tell.”

“Even time won’t tell, if you don’t take a chance. Of course, you know what that means.”

“No, what does it mean?” she asked still resisting.

“You’re going to have to think like a cowboy—big and bold.” With that he plopped his dirty hat on her head, letting it fall clear down over her eyes.

When she pushed the hat back, he was standing there, staring at the horizon, whistling, “Home on the Range,” off-key.

That was the other thing about cowboys. They thought the sky was the limit. Like her father, who refused to live a regular life, they could make you believe in more than papers, conferences, and tenure. It came with the territory, or maybe the mythology. Whatever, there was no way to resist.