Animal lovers rescue 230 prairie dogs from former Doane University research site

July 8, 2018

Animal lovers captured 230 prairie dogs on land once owned by Doane University, and most have been relocated to a spot in north-central Nebraska.

Doane for years had used the Fillmore County property, which was willed to the college, for education and research into prairie dog behavior. But this spring the university sold the rural property — 320 acres in all — to farmers for $2.63 million. The prairie dog colony has become a soybean field.

The sale of the Aldrich Prairie Research Site, west of Crete, caused a hubbub among some conservationists and some people connected to Doane. The university donated $20,000 to help relocate the prairie dogs, and organizations and volunteers captured far more than expected.

The farmers who turned the property into soybean fields allowed the animal enthusiasts to relocate the mammals. The prairie dog rescuers will pay at least $5,000 for crop damage.

A former Doane professor and administrator said she wished the university had preserved at least 40 to 50 acres so the prairie dog colony could remain. Maureen Franklin called it an “academically enriching area” where students could study prairie dogs.

Franklin, a retired professor and Doane vice president, said she “felt it was not a wise decision to make academically” to give up the prairie dog colony.

A Doane spokesman said through an email that the money from the land sale would go to Doane’s endowment, for scholarships and university operations. The land came to Doane 18 years ago through a gift from the Margaret Aldrich estate. Aldrich was a 1931 Doane graduate.

“While there were a few environmentalists and conservationists who were disappointed in the sale of the land, overall Doane has not felt much backlash from the decision,” said the spokesman, Ryan Mueksch. “Doane has a long history of being a strong advocate and supporter of conservation, something we continue to value today.”

Russell Souchek, a Doane environmental science professor, said some students went to the site to study prairie dog grooming, predatory response and other behavior.

But Souchek said the fact that the site was 35 miles west of the university made its use by students sporadic.

Two conservation groups and about 30 volunteers helped trap the prairie dogs and take them to the Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary near Bassett.

“It’s a very rewarding thing to be able to do,” said Jill Sideris of Omaha, one of the volunteers. “It was an honor to be there.”

Omaha-based Nebraska Wildlife Rehab and Audubon of Kansas oversaw the relocation project. Wildlife Rehab will keep close to 50 juvenile and baby prairie dogs at its Fort Calhoun facility until August, when the organization is confident they are ready to be relocated. Those young prairie dogs were separated from their family groups.

Laura Stastny, head of Nebraska Wildlife Rehab, said the Hutton sanctuary is “the perfect release spot for these prairie dogs.”

There already were prairie dogs at the sanctuary, and there is room for more, Stastny said. She said the relocated animals are digging burrows and consolidating into their family groups.

“By all accounts they’re doing well,” she said. “They seem to have integrated and have their own burrows.”

Stastny said the rescuers received coaching in how to trap and relocate the animals from the Prairie Dog Coalition in Boulder, Colorado. The process involves baiting small cage-traps with a sweet horse feed, and allowing the animals to get comfortable going in and out of them.

Then the door is triggered to close with the prairie dog inside. The little mammals were placed in bigger crates and kept in a large shed on the site. Then the first 106 were driven to the Hutton site in northern Nebraska and released 11 days ago. Seventy-seven more were relocated late last week.

Stastny said she had hoped to move 100 prairie dogs, so the additional 130 made it a rewarding haul. The mission cost a total of close to $35,000, she said.

Ron Klataske, a former regional vice president for the National Audubon Society, had worked with the late Harold Hutton to gain national scenic river designation for the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska.

So when Hutton and his wife, Lucille, wanted a conservation partner to own and oversee about 5,000 acres as the Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary, they looked to Klataske. By this time Klataske was head of Audubon of Kansas.

That is how the Hutton ranch was chosen for relocating the Aldrich prairie dogs. The Hutton ranch is a four-hour drive north from the Aldrich site.

Klataske said prairie dogs are unfairly viewed by many people as pests. “It’s not easy to advocate for prairie dogs in many instances,” he said. “There is a monumental myth that prairie dogs create burrows and livestock step in them and break their legs.” That rarely happens, he said.

Some people believe they are carriers of bubonic plague. Klataske said prairie dogs’ resistance is so weak against plague that it quickly kills them, diminishing the threat of contamination. Further, he said, plague hasn’t been found in eastern Nebraska.

Prairie dogs are key prey for many predators, he said. And their burrows — sometimes when vacated and sometimes when still inhabited — provide shelter for other species. They include burrowing owls, box turtles, cottontail rabbits, swift foxes, lizards, frogs, snakes and toads, Klataske said.

Volunteer Jill Sideris, a 52-year-old businesswoman, said she considered it a profound experience to help relocate the prairie dogs. They are interesting, wonderful mammals, she said.

“They have a reason to exist,” Sideris said. “They have a right to exist.”