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Far From the Prairie, Professor Makes Waves
U-Md. Researcher's Data on Rodent Become Fodder for Environmentalists

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.

"They are herbivores, strictly," Hoogland says. "Except for eating babies."

Hoogland didn't set out intending to study prairie dog cannibalism. As a young researcher, he first tried to study a species of ground squirrel, but they just mated and then scattered. Despairing of ever being able to keep track of them, Hoogland says, he actually cried.

Then, in the early 1970s, he found prairie dogs. The animals spent most of their life within the same few acres -- and a good bit of it above ground, where he could watch them. Perfect.

"Within 10 minutes, I remember saying out loud to myself, 'I could study these things for the next 10 years,' " he recalled.

It turned out to be a much longer commitment than that. Hoogland found a job at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which has an office here in this Appalachian college town.

It's not that there are any prairie dogs in Maryland; there aren't. The appeal was the flexible schedule: Hoogland's bosses let him live with prairie dogs for more than four months a year.

This month, Hoogland left for the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado, home to a colony of white-tailed prairie dogs. He and a team of assistants plan to capture all the animals and paint their fur with identifying numbers, racing stripes or other designs. Then they will climb up in seven-foot-high towers and watch what ensues.

And watch.

And watch.

They will note which dogs "kiss" each other, pressing their teeth together in a greeting gesture; who fights with whom; who spends the night in whose burrow.

They will watch up to 14 hours a day, every day -- doing work that can be tedious and tense at the same time.

"It always looks like nothing's happening," said Mark Hoogland, 29, one of Hoogland's four children, who often helped with research and were home-schooled to accommodate the family's schedule. "But then somebody sneaks into somebody else's burrow, and that's what you've been watching all day long for."

They have seen all kinds of things from their perches. There was mating-season chaos, in which males tried to keep females sequestered underground -- before they escaped out a back entrance. There were insights into prairie dog altruism: The scientists dragged a stuffed badger across the colony and noted which dogs would give an alarm call to warn others. Some warned their relatives. Some saved only themselves.

Then there was the baby-killing. Hoogland didn't notice it for seven years, because it usually happens only underground. One of his early clues was the sight of a female prairie dog emerging from another mother's burrow, licking blood off her claws.

"It was almost like I was watching Macbeth," he said, thinking of Lady Macbeth's attempts to wash an imaginary "damned spot" of blood from her hands.

Hoogland says he's still not sure exactly why they do it. It may be simply for a high-protein meal.

"You wouldn't find out a lot of these things unless you were just terribly persistent," said Pete Gober, a field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Pierre, S.D. "He never gets tired of it."

Hoogland says he still isn't.

"People say, 'Don't you see the same things?' " Hoogland said. "Never see the same things. Always something new."

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