The Market for Prairie Dogs

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The Market for Prairie Dogs

by Ari Armstrong

[The following column originally appeared in the January 22, 2004, edition of Boulder Weekly.]

I remember the moment vividly. Just across the street from my residence is a path that runs along a private lot and into extensive areas of open space. On a sunny afternoon some months ago, as I set off down the trail, I was horrified to realize that the only sounds I could hear were the sounds of my own footsteps.

The field along the trail looked the same -- it was covered with mounds of dirt surrounding holes dug by prairie dogs. But the field was deathly quiet.

I knew what had happened. A "for sale" sign on the lot had been marked as "sold." I suppose I expected the day when the prairie dogs would be killed. What I didn't quite expect was the profound sense of sadness I felt as I walked alongside the field. Later that evening, my wife confirmed she'd seen people walking through the area putting something in the holes. Now a three-story complex is going up on the lot.

My wife and I used to amuse ourselves wondering how the prairie dogs could get so fat in the fall. We smiled as they chirped to warn their neighbors. The dogs do these funny, frantic toe-touches when they get really excited. So, yes, I recognize people can form sympathies for animals.

Prairie dogs are back in the news in Boulder because of the demands of state law and the crowding caused by relocating prairie dogs. City council plans to revisit the issue next month.

Discussions about prairie dogs in the Boulder Weekly have not always been pleasant. About two years ago, then-editor Wayne Laugesen concluded a column, "Prairie dogs are in no way equal to humans. Their survival must be dependent upon the goodwill of the people who own the habitat they use. Rodents are radically different than people, far less valuable than people, and they should be treated as such. They can and should be saved, but not if it causes a single human being needless trauma or involuntary expense."

Here are some of the comments letter writers made about the column: "the worst journalism I've ever come across" -- "very shortsighted" -- "your speciesism is offensive" -- "warped lack of reverence for life of any type" -- "anyone that would harm an animal is a worthless turd" -- "callous and bone-chilling." The sniping came from both sides. Many writers on both sides also made reasoned points.

I want to find common ground, not provoke hostilities. (I don't want any letter suggesting I "should be shot on sight," as somebody suggested about Laugesen.) Yet, while I find much in Laugesen's article to criticize, I agree with his conclusion. A person is of greater worth than an animal, and people clearly have rights. Those who advocate animal rights need to resolve a host of thorny issues, such as which animals have rights (mosquito, lizard, rat?), what rights they have, and why a prairie dog has rights yet a fetus does not (assuming most animal-rights activists are pro-choice).

I hate to break it to the gentle readers of Boulder, but outside of wealthy, mostly white, liberal enclaves, few people care whether prairie dogs are killed on a particular lot to make way for a building. (I live south of Boulder, where I heard not a whisper of protest.) Fewer still think animals should have anything beyond minimal legal protections.

But there is a strategy for protecting prairie dogs that all parties can appreciate, be they ranchers or environmentalists, conservatives or liberals, Greens or Libertarians. That strategy is free-market environmentalism, a movement championed by the Political Economy Research Center at www.perc.org.

Though she might bristle at the title, Jennifer Melton, a Boulder lawyer and activist, is a preeminent free-market environmentalist. She is the president of Southern Plains Land Trust (www.southernplains.org), a group concerned about "the failure of public lands policy" and that has turned to "private land acquisition" to "save the natural, shortgrass prairie ecosystem." Melton reports the group has turned over 3,000 acres into preserves. The group's efforts to reform public lands will, of course, raise controversy, but nobody can oppose efforts to raise money voluntarily to protect prairie dogs and other animals of the plains.

When we met on Reggie Rivers' television show to discuss animal rights, Melton argued modern "factory farms" are a major cause of animal abuse. I argued the voluntary market provides the tools to achieve many of the aims of environmentalists. Melton's work proves my point. To extend the argument, Boulder residents are free to buy up lots in town to save resident prairie dogs.

Animal-rights activists are never going to convince the general population that animals should have robust legal protections approaching those for humans. Those who shoot prairie dogs for sport are never going to convince animal-rights activists that's okay. But all sides can agree that wildlife preserves purchased with voluntary contributions are wonderful. Economic liberty enables people to take care of animals and maintain harmonious relationships with other people, too.

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