February 2, 2003
By TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS
CASTLE VALLEY, Utah - Will the groundhog see his shadow this morning and retreat into his burrow for the next six weeks of winter, or will a cloudy day portend an early spring? A derivative of Candlemas, Groundhog Day reminds us that in the heart of winter, rebirth is possible, even in a frozen world.
We await the prognostication of the hibernating ones to signal our future, be it a groundhog, woodchuck, badger or hedgehog. In the American West, we look to the prairie dog: clay-colored sentinels that stand on their mounds watching the horizon for clues; a quick bark warns danger is near. A fair prediction could be made that on this day, the shadow they see is not of a prolonged winter, but of a prolonged history of abuse.
There are five species of prairie dogs in North America: black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison, Mexican and Utah. All of them are social creatures. All of them are in jeopardy.The causes: cruelty and a loss of habitat.
It was estimated that this little wild dog of the prairie numbered an astonishing five billion in North America in the early 1900's. The largest colony on record, in Texas, was 100 miles wide, 250 miles long and contained an estimated 400 million prairie dogs.
Prairie dogs create habitat, not only for themselves, but for other grassland inhabitants. With their mounds and extensive burrowing systems, their home is home to myriad other creatures. One study of black-tailed prairie dogs identified more than 140 species of wildlife associated with prairie dog towns, including bison, pronghorn antelope and burrowing owls, as well as carnivores like rattlesnakes, coyotes and black-footed ferrets.
Prairie dogs create community. Destroy them and you destroy a varied world. Barre Toelken, a folklorist in the American studies department at Utah State University, tells the following story: In 1950, government officials proposed getting rid of prairie dogs on parts of the Navajo Reservation to protect the roots of the sparse desert grasses and thereby maintain some grazing for sheep. The Navajo elders objected, insisting that "if you kill all the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for the rain."
The officials carried out their plan, and the desert near Chilchinbito, Ariz., became a virtual wasteland. Without the ground-turning process of the burrowing animals, the soil became solidly packed, impervious to rain. The result: fierce runoff creating devastating erosion.
In 2003, the Utah prairie dog, in particular, is imperiled. After years of poisoning campaigns, indiscriminate shooting, disease and loss of habitat, the Utah prairie dog was listed as an endangered species in 1973. In 1984, pressures by ranchers, farmers and developers on the State of Utah and the federal government resulted in the prairie dog being reclassified as threatened, which allowed for the animal to be killed once again. Almost 20 years later, its population is believed to number only 4,217, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
This week, a coalition of environmental groups are petitioning the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to reclassify the Utah prairie dog as endangered, to stay the hand of extinction.
As we find ourselves on the eve of war, why should we care about the fate of an invisible animal in remote Western grasslands that spends half of its life underground? Because the story of the Utah prairie dog is the story of the range of our compassion. If we can extend our idea of community to include the lowliest of creatures, we will be closer to finding a pathway to empathy and tolerance. If we cannot accommodate them, the shadow we will see on our own home ground will be a forecast of our extended winter of the soul.
Terry Tempest Williams is author of "Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert."