BISMARCK-A small critter in western North Dakota tips the controversy scale well above its three-pound fighting weight.

Cute as a bug's ear with its chirruping, kissing-cousin ways on one hand, it's a potent competitor to cattle grazers on the other. The black-tailed prairie dog is in the crosshairs once again, this time in a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to eradicate about one-third of its acreage and thousands of the animals where they are encroaching on private land across a designated boundary fence.

The proposed action could start within months and falls under the agency's mission to be a good neighbor to ranchers whose property is tightly intermingled amongst the 1 million grassland acres, mostly in the Badlands country from Alexander in the northwest past Amidon to the south.

The agency has been working on the plan since 2015 and will soon pull the trigger, though not literally. Instead, starting possibly this fall, it proposes to use a rodenticide poison to kill colony populations on its boundaries one-quarter mile back, provided the private landowner agrees to do the same with his own money on his side of the fence. About 100 private landowners would be in the mix.

Shannon Boehm is chief ranger of the Medora District of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, gathered under the Dakota Prairie Grasslands umbrella for administration purposes.

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This is not the agency's first attempt to manage prairie dog encroachment.

"We made four attempts in the past 15 years, and it didn't make a dent," Boehm said. "We decided to come up with a plan to cover the entire Little Missouri National Grasslands and address the problem holistically."

More than one-third of the 5,600 acres of prairie dog habitat and 66 distinct colonies would be affected under the plan. There are four distinct complexes of dog town colonies in the grasslands and Boehm said the eradication plan involves all four complexes to some degree. Two of the complexes are in the southern Medora District on Indian and Boyce creeks and two are in the McKenzie District to the north.

The idea is to initiate a multi-year plan, starting with poison. Once the prairie dogs are gone, the agency hopes a higher vegetative barrier can get established in the quarter-mile zone, discouraging colony growth back toward the private lands, Boehm said.

"We want to knock 'em back consistently so that the non-lethal (vegetative) measures have a chance to take," Boehm said.

Small dogs, big problem

Bruce Bowman is a Rhame-area rancher and former president of the Little Missouri Grazing Association. The association manages livestock grazing activities on its region of the grasslands, issuing permits to ranchers to graze public lands either in pastures attached specifically to their headquarters or in shared pasture arrangements.

Bruce Bowman was among 44 people who sent an official comment to the Forest Service on the prairie dog plan.

As he sees it, while the prairie dogs may only occupy about .5 percent of the total grasslands, the damage where they do have colonies is hard to overstate.

"We see a destruction of the resource to the grass and to the waterways because of erosion and runoff," Bruce Bowman said. "I'm not opposed to the prairie dogs, but to the destruction."

In his comments, he points to the irony that prairie dogs have contributed to the loss of greater sage grouse habitat at the same time state and federal wildlife agencies are scrambling to restore the habitat and prevent the wild game bird from reaching the federal Endangered Species status.

Several association ranchers are at ground zero, so to speak, of prairie dog occupation. One is Larry Fischer, who lives down a gravel road out in the open country north of Rhame. Prairie dogs have established colonies on both his private and public grazing pastures, returning to old burrows even after being eradicated.

"I've had 'em in my wheat and alfalfa; I've had 'em all over. It's been pretty crazy the last two years," he said.

He and his wife, Loreen Fischer, set dozens of traps over the prairie dog holes to keep the animals out of their crops.

"We're setting traps every day, no Sundays off. This is a job," he said.

Loreen Fischer says even persistent gun hunting in the summer is of no discernable help.

"We can't make a difference," she said.

Larry Fischer said prairie dogs should be tolerated and ranchers like him don't want to contribute to the extinction of a species.

"We just want common sense - don't let them dominate and take cattle off the grass," he said.

Drought, coupled with loss of range from prairie dogs, has already led to reductions of cow-calf pairs allowed in some grazing pastures, Larry Fischer said.

Lola Hewson, business manager for the grazing association, said the group wants to see the Forest Service follow up its eradication and stay on top of the problem, so the whole process doesn't have to start all over again.

Perhaps one-third of the association's 90 members are being encroached by prairie dogs, according to Hewson.

"Each and every member will be committed on their side of the fence," she said.

In the bull's eye

Further north, rancher Dick Bowman - well known for his thoroughbred racing horse rescue - squeezes into Bruce Bowman's off-roader for a bouncing ride into the beautiful and remote country where he has federal grazing pastures in Boyce Creek drainage above the valley of the Little Missouri River.

Dick Bowman is a good example of what it's like in the bullseye of the .5 percent of land occupied by prairie dogs. Of the 2,400 acres in his permitted public pastures, a full one-fourth is occupied by prairie dogs.

"I'm hit as hard as anybody. Absolutely nothing grows here," he said, looking at a lunar-like area with hundreds of inverted craters and loose barren soil from burrowing and grass consumption. "If we grazed with cattle like this, the government would throw us out of here."

Dick Bowman estimates that if the prairie dogs continue to expand their territory - which they do especially in response to drought - as much as half the grass production in the pastures will be gone in a decade.

"This could potentially put me out of business in five, maybe 10 years," he said. "I've lived here my entire life, and this all started with one little dinky prairie dog town out on that flat and this is what's happened after years of neglect. I feel sorry for the next generation; they're really going to have a fight on their hands."

Prairie dog defenders

Some are fighting on the prairie dog's behalf, along with the Forest Service. The agency may be planning to be good neighbors to private lands through eradication, but will stand by natural colony growth in other areas.

Boehm says overall the plan will protect and foster what is a keystone, indicator species on the grasslands, both because prairie dogs are native and because they support the health of other species, including burrowing owls and prairie rattlers, who occupy the burrows, and predators, such as ferruginous hawks. Deer are drawn to prairie dog towns because the dogs' constant nibbling encourages regrowth of tasty young grass shoots, though ranchers say that doesn't help livestock because it's just too short to eat.

Defenders of Wildlife, along with the Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society, wants the Forest Service to take a different approach to being a good neighbor.

Defender's senior representative for the Rockies and Great Plains program Chamois Andersen said the organizations oppose a plan that goes straight to lethal means.

Instead, with help from the organizations, she advocates relocating prairie dogs in attempt to create a 10,000- to 15,000-acre complex large enough to support the reintroduction of the endangered black-footed ferret, coupled with seeding vegetative grass barriers against future private land encroachment.

The Forest Service has identified a complex on the McKenzie District for possible reintroduction of the ferret. It's a nocturnal animal with eyes that glow green in the dark and once co-existed on the edges of prairie dog towns, each making dinner out of as many as 100 dogs annually. The ferret came within a whisker of extinction but, due to a captive breeding program by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now boasts some 300 breeding pairs that have been introduced into dog towns in several states, including South Dakota.

Andersen said North Dakota has not experienced the flea-carried plague that's wiped out prairie dogs elsewhere. Aside from creating a large complex for ferret reintroduction, the larger issue is managing prairie dogs properly because they are a healthy species that connects to the health of other species.

"There's no doubt that in a drought, grass forage is a problem for all animals. We want to build up the populations where they can be the most benefit and work together with ranchers. There's no way we want to be on the other side of the fence - we're all on the side of the resource," Andersen said.

The organizations are willing to bring all the tools they have to bear on a non-lethal, more beneficial plan to manage the encroachment, according to Andersen.

"We fund it, we partner and we actually do the work," she said.

In the meantime, the U.S. Forest Service is looking to the skies before dealing with underground schematics.

"To protect migratory birds, Sept. 15 would be the earliest date we could start (with rodenticide). We hope to start then, because this has already been taking too long," Boehm said.