Prairie dogs: One rancher's fight for balance

Posted: Dec 15, 2019

Last Saturday, on the occasion of his 74th birthday, Larry Haverfield had 25 black-footed ferrets released on his Kansas ranch. Under the watchful eyes of the rancher, several eagles and a fair number of ferruginous hawks, the ferrets scurried off in every direction. It was a great day for Haverfield, who has worked this ranch since 1956 and has seen a recent rebound in the amount of wildlife he encounters. “I’m closer to the land than most people here,” he says, “and what we’re trying to do is mimic what it used to be like when buffalo left tracks across this land.”

Ferrets would be an unusual gift for a rancher, if not for the fact that Haverfield is a proponent of natural balance. He has upwards of 7,000 acres of prairie dog habitat where he grazes his steer. Black-footed ferrets, which are among the most endangered mammals in the world, subsist primarily on prairie dogs.

But not everyone in Logan County, including local officials and Haverfield’s neighbors, wanted to let nature take its course. Since, under Kansas law, it’s illegal to have prairie dogs on your land, Haverfield had to fight hard to keep them from being poisoned. Now, when a rancher fights to keep so-called “pests” on his land, it leads to some head-scratching. After all, the two are famous foes—many ranchers see prairie dogs as grass-munching, disease-carrying varmints that dig holes that could break the leg of a cow or horse that steps in it.

So why did Haverfield wrangle to keep his prairie dogs? “We’re short-sighted as humans,” he says, “I don’t think a person lives long enough to figure out prairie dogs, and to think we can just kill them all and have no consequences is just wrong-headed.” Haverfield says getting on in years makes it easier to stand up for what you believe in. Youthful anxieties about winning friends have long passed; doing what’s right takes precedence. “Hopefully, you do as little harm and as much good as you can in your lifetime,” he says.

Fighting Logan Country has cost Haverfield and the guy who owns the land, Gordon Barnhardt, $22,000 each so far. They took the battle to District Court in October and won. The decision is now under appeal.

-Heather Hansen

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