For years, prairie dogs have been the bane of cattle ranchers, whose livestock are routinely injured when stepping in prairie dog holes. In response, ranchers have gassed, poisoned, drowned or buried entire colonies alive. But one enterprising pest control company has devised a more humane method of removing the rodents -- with a modified sewer cleaning truck.
Prairie dogs are an iconic animal of the American West -- right up there with deer, bison and elk -- but like so many other native species, prairie dogs have come under increasing pressure from human expansion -- first by ranchers and cattle farmers, now by urban developers. At the turn of the 20th century, prairie dog habitats spread over an estimated 700 million acres from Mexico to Montana -- the largest of which was a 65,000 square kilometre "town" located in central Texas that housed more than 400 million individuals -- but the animals have bee utterly decimated by human activity, their population shrinking by as much as 98 per cent since then.
The problem with conventional control methods is that, "without prairie dogs, there would be no other wild species on the prairie at all," Paula Martin, vice president of the Prairie Ecosystem Conservation Alliance (PECA), told Philly.com. But that's where the Dog Gone vacuum truck comes in.
Built by Gay Balfour of Cortez, CO, the system utilises a modified sewer-clearing truck to generate suction though a 4-inch diameter length of plastic tubing. Simply insert the tube into a prairie dog burrow, turn on the suction, and wait for the 1kg critters to get hoovered up into the waiting holding tank. They system produces a high amount of suction and is able to whisk the rodents up the pipe at speeds topping 100km/h, though baffles at the containment truck slow do them down to 24km/h before exiting the pipe and softly tossing them against the padded walls of the holding tank.
And while some animal rights groups have claimed that the system kills and maims a large number of the dogs, "From what I saw, they seemed fine -- more dizzy than anything else, "Scott Dutcher, head of the Colorado Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal Protection, told the Chicago Tribune. "We have received no complaints. Common sense tells you that there are no easy ways to get a prairie dog out of its hole."
Once inside the air-conditioned truck, the dogs are doused with flea powder and kept fed with a supply of carrots and grain as they are being relocated. Originally, many of the prairie dogs were shipped throughout the American West for use as a food source for the black-footed ferret. The ferrets have also faced near annihilation at the hands of man, but recent reintroduction programs have begun to rebuild their populations and the prairie dogs -- one of their favourite prey -- has been instrumental in doing so.
"Even though they are sacrificed to the ferrets, that's not our long-term intent," Balfour told the Tribune. "Once the ferrets are back up, we can release the prairie dogs into the wild and let the two of them work out their own deal." [Philly - Chicago Tribune - United Wildlife]