My prairie dogs are all dead. When I got home from work, Whitney said she'd noticed on her walk that almost all of the holes were plugged up with dirt, and there was a dead prairie dog lying on the ground. Then I heard from my dad what I've always feared – there was a city truck and signs this morning that said “Westminster prairie dog management: Stay on path.”
It poured rain today, probably the biggest rain we've had this year. It would have been so nice, but once I learned that, it just seemed like an obstacle to me going down and investigating for myself. When it finally let up a little after sunset Whitney and I went down. Maybe it was just the rain flushing out the wetland, but it smelled like death. The creek was actually a full fledged creek for once, running over the path and blocking our way, so we went around the long way. The sight of the colony was painful. A brown puddle marked every hole that had been filled in, and there was the dead prairie dog, stiff and drenched, eyes shut, paws raised.
They did it, and I can't believe it’s too late. They killed the prairie dogs. I've seen this coming for years, and often put off my now moot plan to head off this eventuality by making some kind of compromise with the city. What happened? Did a neighbor complain about them? Was it the noise of their barking, the occasional burrow too near the trail, unfounded fears of the plague, or just a general belief that rodents of all sorts should be exterminated?
I feel slighted that no one told me about this. I grew up in a house on the hillside overlooking the field. When I was a kid, it was my wild frontier, my country. Later, I decided I should try to take care of it; I adopted it. I'm all too aware of the trash littering the field and the weeds cluttering it, but it remains my place. I know every bump in the terrain and the location of every Russian olive tree. I know where the cattail marsh ends and becomes a dry creek bed, and I knew these prairie dogs. I know where the west most hole is, the south most and the east most hole. I know where you could put a barrier to keep the prairie dogs from expanding further and where you wouldn't need to because natural barriers stop them. I could diagram the expansion of the colony over the last several years. Probably no one involved in making this decision has ever heard of me. No one said, “Hey, we've got a volunteer who’s been working on that property almost every month for the last six years – maybe we could get some input from that guy.” Was this decision made by someone who’s never even been here before?
A pair of foxes denned on the hillside for three years. Every spring their litter would come out around sunset to romp and play, and many people in the neighborhood enjoyed watching them. The mouth of that den was littered with prairie dog bones, and the colony was where the adults could most often be seen, hunting. Two years ago there was a coyote den in the field, very near the colony, and there’s a dead tree in the middle of the field where hawks perch. From there, they can be seen swooping down low over the prairie dog colony, looking for lunch. I don't expect I'll see as many of those animals, now that the prairie dogs are gone. You know what else? The area of the colony, as the rest of the field, is completely covered by weeds. But at the colony the weeds are all kept very short as the prairie dogs mow them down. They do a better job of keeping the weeds down than a city weed crew could do, and I should know since I'm on one. The prairie dogs themselves had lives, too.
I'm sad that the prairie dogs are dead, and disappointed in myself for failing them. I'm sad that it’s suddenly too late, that I can't even get a word in about their fate. That eerie silence in the field tonight – and from now on – is the sound of dead prairie dogs.