How Natural Resources Agency Personnel View Black-tailed Prairie Dogs

Black-tailed prairie dog management is one of the most conflict-laden wildlife issues in the United States today. To resolve this problem, one must find common ground among stakeholders. As a step towards doing this, we surveyed one key stakeholder group: government agents responsible for managing prairie dogs. Our mail survey assessed their values, attitudes, and knowledge about prairie dogs.

Black-tailed prairie dog colonies once spread across the western Great Plains. The area originally occupied by prairie dogs declined to a mere 1-2% of its historical size within 100 years. Livestock ranchers tend to believe that rodents are pests. Current threats to these animals include poisoning, shooting, sylvatic plague, and habitat loss. Despite the long-held belief that prairie dogs out-compete cattle for forage, recent studies have shown that well-managed livestock operations and prairie dogs can be compatible. Though ranchers want to eliminate or at least control them, conservationists want to recover and protect prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are ‘keystone’ species, whose activities, such as burrowing and vegetation clipping, create rich habitat patches that attract a diversity of wildlife. Some animals eat prairie dogs and others use their burrows for shelter, for example.

Attitudes vary from extreme dislike of to intense support for prairie dogs. The values, attitudes, and knowledge of various stakeholders likely exert a strong influence over policy related to prairie dogs — especially the attitudes of agency personnel directly responsible for their management. Public land managers, wildlife officials, and agriculture field agents can have broad discretion in policy development and implementation. A better understanding of agency personnel perspectives can provide insights into agency behaviour.

We designed our survey to measure similarities and differences among and between national, state, tribal, and local government officials, and also between those who manage wildlife and those who manage public lands, such as employees of the Departments of Interior or Agriculture. We asked respondents their gender, age, education level, years worked in current job, residence type (rural or urban), and if they had ever lived on a ranch or farm. Some questions tested respondents’ prairie dog knowledge.

Survey respondents who scored higher on the knowledge scale held more positive attitudes toward prairie dogs. Generally, people from rural areas displayed more negative attitudes than did people from towns and cities. Respondents whose families farmed or ranched provided more negative responses than those whose families did not. People working in agricultural professions held more negative attitudes towards prairie dogs than did land managers and people working in wildlife fields. People working locally displayed more negative attitudes than individuals working at the state or national level.

Respondents from all groups strongly valued wildlife. They agreed that prairie dog management should focus on financial incentives to citizens for protecting prairie dogs, implementing conservation on public lands, and controlling populations that exceed certain sizes. Knowledge about these shared values could serve as a foundation for improved relationships. Collaboration between agencies could start with projects that advance conservation on public land and promote incentive programmes while also improving attitudes about prairie dogs. Successful initial collaborative efforts might then help agencies productively tackle more controversial management issues, such as promoting conservation on private land and supporting strict protection with the Endangered Species Act listing. We hope this study helps agencies with currently competing prairie dog-management goals and forges more cooperative relationships.

Originally published as:
Reading, R.P., D. Stern and L. Mc-Cain. 2006. Attitudes and Knowledge of Natural Resources Agency Personnel towards Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). Conservation and Society 4(4): 592-618.

This article is from issue


2008 Jun