It’s a damn good thing City Councilor Ronald Trujillo has taken a proposed ordinance to ban the feeding of prairie dogs and stuffed it down a mysterious hole in a city park. It makes no sense to legislate such a thing—as numerous critics have pointed out—but that doesn’t mean Trujillo’s sentiment was wrong.
Even if Trujillo’s only motivation in proposing the ordinance was the silly dream that children (and adults) might be able to play ball in our parks without snapping their ankles in prairie dog holes, his suggestion that people ought to stop feeding the critters is wholly in line with the best environmental practices of the day. By raising the issue, Trujillo has demonstrated the deeply hypocritical practices and flawed logic of many of Santa Fe’s prairie dog defenders.
The Gunnison’s Prairie Dog, so the argument goes, is a keystone species in the “sagebrush ecosystem”—a critical link in a chain of species that allows the high desert in New Mexico and Arizona to thrive, or at least maintain balance. Never mind that there’s nary a true sagebrush ecosystem within city limits, especially within parks—the gist of the argument is true: The prairie dog is a remarkable and important animal, and is darned cute to boot. Those who argue in favor of its protection are justified in doing so, although those who believe the city’s relocation program is as bad as exterminating the fuzzy rodents are taking it a little too far. It’s better to put the creatures into an ecosystem they can actually “keystone” than it is to let them escape natural predators in our parks, and breed and feed under wholly different conditions.
The feed part is particularly absurd. There’s no doubt that city-dwelling prairie dogs already have augmented their traditional diet of seeds, herbs, roots and grasses with fast-food litter and other appalling human detritus. That’s no reason to intentionally enable a shift in diet and, more critically, a shift in the development of nature’s skill set. It’s no secret that feeding marmots, bears, deer, etc., creates fat animals who become inured to the threat of predators, and who risk failing to develop the skills necessary to survive without relying on the human trough. Usually, in wilderness areas, one gets the distinct sense that the people who cheerily feed the wildlife against regulations and recommendations are the same ones who cover their lawns with poisons and pesticides and happily go nuclear on gophers, squirrels and, yes, the cutest of prairie dogs.
But in Santa Fe we have the worst of confusing situations—it’s the people who probably don’t violate wilderness regulations who think they have a special dispensation to tweak the evolution of prairie dogs because the animals “seem needy.” They would never pocket a fossil or a pottery shard, but they’ve imagined a sacred calling to lend a helping hand to cute critters. Living in close proximity to prairie dogs doesn’t give us the right to insert ourselves into their ecosystem. At a very fundamental level, there’s arguably no difference between feeding a prairie dog and killing a prairie dog—you’re screwing with them either way. That’s a tough concept to wrap around a bleeding heart.
People think: “Oh, but I will feed them every day—they can rely on me.” They believe feeding prairie dogs is “benign” and anthropomorphize rodents into needy humans who exhibit gratitude. But prairie dogs can’t rely on people—not on individuals and not on communities.
It’s neither fair nor smart to argue for the preservation of the prairie dog on the grounds of its importance to the ecosystem, and then casually disregard that same ecosystem when it suits the emotional whimsies of people who profess integrity in the matter.
It’s also neither fair nor smart to waste city resources on fining illicit feeders of wildlife, in general, or prairie dogs, in particular. Slapping the cuffs on granny for tossing carrots down a rodent hole is a little more draconian than a wildlife policy needs to be. But if the city is going to put time and energy toward developing a “policy” rather than an ordinance—as Trujillo now suggests—the results risk being equally ineffective.
Developing a policy usually means a task force or a commission, and that usually means too many people sporadically meeting for too long and getting nothing done. The result tends to be hazy pseudo-policy that ensures all “stakeholders” have their feelings protected rather than useful, educational, implementable strategy for dealing with the initial problem. In other words, we’ll need some uncharacteristically sensible heads at the table who understand the need for consistent behavior.
Protecting animals from humans, as often as not, means protecting them from our kindness as well as our callousness.
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