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Prairie Dog

A prairie dog peeks out of its den in Roberts Prairie Dog Town in the Badlands National Park.

Susan Henderson has been drowning prairie dogs at a fast clip — 1,000 since December — but the Fall River County Weed & Pest Board says it's not enough and had planned to come to her Edgemont ranch on Monday to take things into their own hands.

In court documents filed April 23 in Hot Springs, Henderson asked a circuit court judge to keep the critters alive — at least for now — by issuing an injunction on the board's decision. The judge agreed, and she will face a hearing on May 11 to decide whether the court issues another injunction.

That also means reprieve — at least temporarily — for the prairie dogs.  

The issue started back in December when Henderson received a notice in the mail declaring her 8,000 acres of land to be infested with prairie dogs. The county board demanded an 80 percent "kill" on prairie dogs or the board would take remedial action.

According to the court filing, Henderson went to work. She set up two water tanks "purchased specifically for this purpose (culling rodents)" and killed an estimate of 1,000 of the herbivorous, burrowing animals.

This approach is not ideal from South Dakota's perspective, said Lorin Naasz, spokeswoman for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

"In general, we do not recommend drowning as an effective method for prairie dog control."

Naasz says the state typically receives 15 to 20 requests a year — more in dry years — to respond to prairie dog encroachment. And while cuddly, prairie dogs can be considered a pest under certain conditions set aside in state law. Their burrowing encourages fauna activity that while natural to prairie plants, such as shortgrass species, perennials, and forbs, is actually resistant to grazing. Moreover, Naasz says, their holes are potential dangers to "livestock, machinery, and horses with riders."

Henderson "understands the need to control prairie dogs," says the lawsuit, but the winter has been tough and she says she needs more time. After the April 1 deadline set by the weed & pest board came and went, she said she received a letter arrived from the board stating they'd arrive on Monday to use Fumitoxin tablets.

Henderson had argued that the poison pills would certainly kill the prairie dogs but also harm the bald eagles, golden eagles and burrowing owls on the property. The lawsuit points out that bald eagles are sensitive to human disturbance from mid-December through May. Burrowing owls are also protected under the Migratory Bird Act.

Judge Jane Pfeifle in Rapid City this week agreed. 

"It appears that the conduct of the Defendant, if allowed, will likely disturb, molest and/or kill bald eagles, golden eagles and/or burrowing owls located on the subject property."

Fumitoxin is legal for use in South Dakota as a restricted use pesticide.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Fall River County Weed & Pest Board Supervisor Nina Steinmetz declined to comment. Henderson also declined comment when reached by phone. An assistant for Henderson's attorney, Roger Tellinghuisen of Rapid City, said he was out of the office until Monday.

In the lawsuit, Henderson stated "there is no emergency" requiring the killing of prairie dogs until later this summer after the eagles and burrowing owls have hatched their young.

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Education reporter