Far From the Prairie, Professor Makes Waves

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 24, 2007

FROSTBURG, Md. -- The world's expert on lust, violence and cannibalism among prairie dogs uses a slide in his lectures that sums up a lifetime of research. A pack of the squirrel-size creatures is shown perched on their hind legs: cute, cute, cute, cute, cute.

But then, next to each fuzzy head, John L. Hoogland has written something nasty he has seen happen in a prairie dog "town." "Promiscuity, kidnapping, pedophilia, murder, infanticide," it says. Not so cute.

"Studying prairie dogs is like watching little people," he says. "Whatever we do, they do as well, and usually more often."

Hoogland, a professor at the University of Maryland, has spent 34 years unraveling the daily routines of a burrowing rodent. It has always been interesting work: These towns can make Melrose Place look like Sesame Street.

But now, his research has gained new political importance as environmentalists and ranchers battle over protection for a quintessential Western species. Prairie dog advocates have seized on the findings of this East Coast professor, who calls his subjects "little woofers" and loves them in spite of what they do.

"I'm not doing anything different," said Hoogland, 58. "But now, everybody's interested in prairie dogs."

There are four species of prairie dogs in the United States, but their numbers have declined dramatically. Prairie dogs occupy perhaps 5 percent of their former territory, the result of massive extermination campaigns on the Great Plains.

Even today, they remain perhaps the most hated rodent in the West, because ranchers fear that prairie dogs colonies will eat pastures bare. The dogs are killed by the thousands with poisoned oats, long-range rifles and new technology such as the "Rodenator" -- which blasts their burrows with a propane-fueled explosion.

Environmental groups have sought to cut back on this culling, pushing for greater legal protection for all four species. They have repeatedly cited Hoogland's research in their arguments, because he found that prairie dogs seemed to reproduce more slowly than other rodents, such as rabbits and rats.

That, prairie dog advocates say, makes it hard for their populations to rebound from human slaughtering.

"They can't take these additional stresses on their population," said Nicole Rosmarino of a Santa Fe, N.M.-based group called Forest Guardians.

To learn this, Hoogland had to explore prairie dogs' dark side. He found that they keep their populations down by eating their own kin.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company