DENVER — Consider the prairie dog.
The foot-long creatures have been traditionally regarded as Western vermin that ruin grazing land and decimate crops. Government agencies and property owners alike have spent most of the last century devising ways to reduce their population.
In recent years, rural towns have sponsored shooting "derbies," drawing hunters from around the country to use the lowly rodents for target practice.
But now this downtrodden ground squirrel of the Great Plains has become the focal point of a clash between old and new values in the American West.
"Prairie dogs are one of those species that divide people. You either like them or you don't like them. Hardly anyone falls in the middle," says Mike Threlkeld of the Colorado Department of Agriculture's pest section.
As cities and suburbs swell and development sweeps across the nation's vast prairie lands, this "varmint" is attracting some local champions. Ecologists here are warning that prairie dog colonies, and the ecosystems they support, may be imperiled.
Wildlife conservationists say prairie dog colonies are critical to the survival of more than 100 species, including rare burrowing owls, swift foxes, mountain plovers, golden eagles, and endangered black-footed ferrets.
"The prairie dog is to the prairie what krill is to the ocean," says Jasper Carlton, director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Boulder, Colo. And as the number of dog colonies plummets, "We could be in deep trouble for a lot of species. We are wiping out a major ecosystem."
The eradication programs coupled with plague outbreaks have taken a toll. Once spread over 100 million acres, today, prairie dogs are concentrated in pockets on about 2 million acres of short-grass prairie, from western Texas to eastern Montana, and across to the Dakotas.
Still, to most cattle ranchers, prairie dogs are an expensive pest. They munch grazing land down to scrub and dig up holes that can cripple horses. Farmers say dirt mounds around the burrowing holes trip up their farm equipment, and the critters wreak havoc on crops of corn, sunflower, and alfalfa.
With their network of underground tunnels, prairie dogs even confound the highway department. "They burrow from one side of a frontage road to the other and create a void underneath highways," says Denny Volz, maintenance supervisor for the Colorado Department of Transportation. "We keep having to fill the void underneath and patch the road. They're a real nuisance."
In Wyoming, landowners are free to shoot, poison, or firebomb prairie dogs at will, notes Bob Luce, a biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Lander. "You can do whatever you want to do to them, whenever you want to do it. They aren't a very popular species."
Some ranchers invite gun enthusiasts on their land to shoot the prairie dogs. The sport is becoming so popular that enterprising ranchers can charge shooters for the privilege. Rural towns promote prairie dog "derbies" - day-long shooting competitions - to boost tourism and attract revenue. In Turner, Mont., a guide service called "dogbusters" charges shooters $160 a day for an outing to a dog town.
A similar shoot is expected on June 1 in Brighton, Colo. - east of Denver - where prairie dog towns are still thriving. In Colorado, prairie dogs are considered a game species and may be hunted year-round. Animal rights activists say they will stage a protest to block the shooting event.
"We're in the middle of some sort of insanity," says David Crawford, co-director of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense. "They kill 1,000 prairie dogs in a day at these shoots. There are SWAT teams practicing on prairie dog colonies because they want a moving target. People who think prairie dogs are a pest species are completely wrong. They are integral to the health of the prairie."
Biologists say much of the bias against prairie dogs reflects a lack of understanding. "People in the West are still waging a war on the West - they want to subdue nature," says Mr. Luce. "They don't realize that there's a whole ecosystem complex built around prairie dog habitat."