Prairie dogs don’t recognize property lines. And in western South Dakota, when they stray off the national grassland and onto private property where families make their living raising cattle, they can create headaches for rangers and ranchers alike. In December, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service and 13 families in South Dakota completed a land exchange that created more contiguous wildlife habitat and improved the efficiency of ranching operations.
The Conservancy has been working with ranchers and agency partners to conserve Conata Basin, one of the most intact native grasslands remaining in the United States, since 2005. The basin is located just south of Badlands National Park and within the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.
Conata Basin is home to one of the largest populations of black-tailed prairie dogs in North America. Prairie dogs build networks of burrows and tunnels, providing habitat and food for swift foxes, burrowing owls and other wildlife including the black-footed ferret, one of the rarest mammals in North America.
“Prairie dogs also keep grasses very short around their burrows to help them see approaching predators,” said Corissa Krueger, who coordinates the Conservancy’s work in western South Dakota. “This can create issues for ranchers whose cattle depend on those same grasses for forage.”
The Forest Service manages prairie dogs along boundary areas of Buffalo Gap National Grassland within a half mile of private lands upon request from neighboring landowners.
The Forest Service approached the Conservancy in 2008, requesting assistance with a land exchange that would consolidate public and private lands into larger parcels and reduce boundary conflicts. Forest Service staff identified and ultimately traded 24 parcels of land totaling 3,387 acres in Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which were completely surrounded by private lands and isolated from their other holdings, to the Conservancy. In return, the Conservancy transferred seven parcels of land totaling 2,493 acres to the national grassland, where they will be permanently protected for wildlife while remaining available to local ranchers for grazing.
The Conservancy then sold the land it acquired from the Forest Service to 13 local ranching families who partnered in this effort. One of those landowners was Charles Kruse, whose family has been ranching in the area since his grandparents homesteaded in what today is Badlands National Park. Kruse not only bought land from the Conservancy adjacent to his ranch, he sold land to the Conservancy that was an inholding in the national grassland.
“Now I won’t have to fence or chase cattle on land that is four miles from my ranch, and my son Reid will be able to buy land next door to mine,” Kruse said. “I have wanted to do this trade for many years.”
“This land exchange was a complex series of transactions that took a lot of time, work and cooperation from all parties to complete,” said Kurt Pindel, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service Wall Ranger District. “We couldn’t have done it without The Nature Conservancy.”