Ranchers and government agents. Prairie dogs and the ferrets that eat them. An unlikely team of rivals is making stewardship work on the plains.
BY EMILY WORTMAN-WUNDER | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 04
I’m standing in Dan Merewether’s driveway, surrounded by the clutter of property that’s been workplace and home for several generations. Wearing a classical radio T-shirt and a sly twinkle in his eye, he asks, “How do you want to do this?” I’m here to see a big prairie dog colony — ground zero in the ranching wars — and ask Merewether if he has time to drive. “I’m my own boss,” he says. “We can take as long as you need.” We climb into his two-seater pickup and head out.
The surrounding flatness of the eastern Colorado plains dwarfs his farmhouse on Bucklen Prairie Lane Angus Ranch. The nearest town, Karval, is a church, a post office and a handful of houses. It’s six miles from the county highway and more than an hour from the nearest grocery store. It is, like other Midwest towns, centered on family-owned ranches, declining in population and opportunities for young people. I had contacted Merewether through the Karval Community Alliance, a group of local landowners who market their community to wildlife lovers. If a conservative area could embrace a species as historically unpopular as a prairie dog, I thought, maybe they could teach something about how to get along in this whole divided country.
Because if there’s one thing that Karval isn’t, it’s an oasis of tree-huggers. When, about 15 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed protecting the mountain plover and the prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act, rumors began flying. The community, afraid new laws would hamper their livelihood, sat down to catalog its local assets. Wildlife was at the top of the list, and the Karval Community Alliance was born. With it came reluctant, yet increasingly successful partnerships among landowners, conservationists and government agencies.
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