INTERIOR, S.D. -- Who hates prairie dogs the most? The answer to that Great Plains political question may swing the tight Senate race in South Dakota, determine the fate of the Senate's top Democrat and perhaps even decide which party will control the narrowly divided Senate after next month's election.
To cover his right flank in this conservative state, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle has moved on several fronts this year to demonstrate his profound antipathy toward the rodent, which easterners often describe as cute but which generations of rural South Dakotans have shot, poisoned and cussed as a no-good varmint.
Moves to protect the prairie dog have created an election issue in South Dakota because ranchers see the rodent as a threat to grazing.
(Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
He has pressured the Interior Department to drop the black-tailed prairie dog as a candidate for protection as a threatened species, he supports a controversial plan for them to be poisoned this week on federal land, and he says they are "threatening the quality of life in western South Dakota."
Still, his Republican challenger, John Thune, who two years ago came within 524 votes of winning a Senate seat here, claims that Daschle is a "Johnny-come-lately" when it comes to seeing prairie dogs as a menace to South Dakota values.
"They are a symbol for everything that is bad about how the government takes care of its lands," Thune said, adding that Daschle became anti-prairie dog only "after he was boxed into a political corner."
Daschle disagrees, saying, "John is simply wrong. I have been working on behalf of ranchers on this issue for years."
There is a third party in this dogfight: It's the federally protected black-footed ferret, often described as the rarest, most endangered mammal in North America. As much as South Dakota politicians love to hate prairie dogs, the ferrets love to eat them.
Prairie dogs, indeed, are virtually the only creatures that black-footed ferrets do eat. Without lots of prairie dogs, biologists say, ferrets go extinct. And to the extreme annoyance of local ranchers and the politicians who are desperately seeking their vote, the one place in North America where black-footed ferrets are thriving -- as they dine on an expanding population of prairie dogs -- is here in western South Dakota, in the Conata Basin of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.
The Forest Service, which manages the grassland for grazing, hunting and wildlife conservation, banned shooting and poisoning of prairie dogs here in the mid-1990s. It was part of a costly plan to establish a self-sustaining population of wild ferrets -- and it has been spectacularly successful. Nowhere else, federal officials say, is the black-footed ferret thriving in its ancient prairie habitat.
That success, though, has been accompanied by a prairie dog land grab that infuriates local ranchers. Two years ago, prairie dogs covered about 13,000 acres of federal land in the Conata Basin, according to the Forest Service. Now, they occupy nearly 23,000 acres and are spilling over onto private ranchland.
Having weathered seven years of severe drought that has shrunk their herds and slashed their incomes, ranchers have noisily complained that federal bureaucrats give preference to varmints over hardworking ranch families, who are watching the prairie dogs destroy the grass intended for their cattle.
"Prairie dogs are moving toward our land. It is kind of like a forest fire coming at you," said Charles Kruze, a third-generation rancher and leader of a local anti-prairie-dog coalition.
In this election year, Kruze and other ranchers have been able to bend the ear of Daschle and Thune, as well as Bush administration officials in Washington and nearly every politician in South Dakota. The politicians and officials have all came out in support of the plan to poison prairie dogs on a buffer of federal grassland in the Conata Basin that borders private ranchland.
There is precedent in the Plains states to suggest that even well-known politicians risk electoral oblivion if they neglect populist sentiments regarding local critters. Steve Largent, the former professional football star and high-profile Republican House member from Oklahoma, narrowly lost the governor's race in that state in 2002, at least in part because he supported a proposed ban on cockfighting that outraged rural Oklahomans. They flocked to the polls in higher than normal numbers and made Largent pay for his chicken-loving ways.