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Susan Henderson poses for a portrait on her land in Fall River County. She has taken on county and state officials who want to come onto her land to use a poisonous gas to kill prairie dogs, which they say have reached epidemic infestation levels.

A Fall County rancher has prevailed in her battle against the local weed and pest board that wanted to use poison gas to reduce the prairie dog population on her property near Edgemont.

"I am delighted I was able to save the burrowing owls, eagles and other wildlife," said Susan Henderson, whose ranch spreads out east of Provo. "Had I allowed this poisoning and paid the $8,900-plus the weed and pest board demanded, I would have been liable for federal fines."

Susan Henderson learned of the decision when she received a letter dated Aug. 28 from Nina Steinmetz, the Fall River County Weed and Pest supervisor.

"The Fall River County Weed and Pest Board will not need to do additional remedial efforts for control at this time," Nina Steinmetz, Fall River County Weed and Pest supervisor, said in the letter to Susan Henderson.

In a May 11 court hearing in Rapid City, Henderson and her legal team asked that a hired shooter be given time to reduce the prairie dog population on her 8,000-acre ranch. The county's preferred method — a gaseous control dropped into burrows called Fumitoxin — would likely, Henderson said, kill migrating burrowing owls or harm bald and golden eagles nesting nearby that might ingest poisoned prey. This, Henderson's attorney maintained, would've placed her afoul of federal bird protection laws policed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services.

Judge Jane W. Pfeifle agreed with that argument and ordered a summer-long injunction to prevent the weed and pest board from taking action. The board, along with an officer from the state Department of Agriculture, were to convene for an assessment of her pasture that was scheduled for the last week of August to determine whether shooting prairie dogs had reduced the population.

In the letter sent to Henderson, the state said the prairie dog population had been significantly reduced.

"On Tuesday, August 14, 2018, Ron Moehring, SD Dept. of AG and myself did the third Prairie Dog Count for the property currently under enforcement. This count concluded that an 80 percent reduction was achieved," Steinmetz wrote in the letter to Henderson.

A report attached to the letter and provided to the Journal by Henderson documents figures from three visits — in December 2017, March and Aug. 14 — and shows that while on the first two visits officials counted on average 14 dogs at three sites on Henderson's land over a duration of between 10 and 15 minutes at each site. The total number of dogs observed in August at all three sites was down to 1 rodent.

"Much improved ground cover," the report states.

State law concerning prairie dogs shows the presence of even one prairie dog can — under certain conditions — be considered an infestation. Henderson, who sued the pest board in April, updated her claim this summer to question the methodology the state and county boards use for declaring an infestation. 

A letter sent by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services agent earlier this year to the weed and pest board recommended waiting until fall for any enforcement action to avoid harm to the migratory bird population on Henderson's property. 

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Contact Christopher Vondracek at Christopher.Vondracek@rapidcityjournal.com.

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