It was once North America's answer to the Serengeti Plain of Eastern Africa - an endless grassland sprawling across the heart of the continent, with wildlife populations so large it took days for human settlers to pass through the herds.
Over thousands of years, the Western prairie was shaped by two ubiquitous species: bison and prairie dogs.
Bison herds numbered into the tens of millions, and prairie-dog communities stretched for hundreds of square miles.
Today, with the buffaloes decimated to a few hundred thousand mostly domesticated animals, and prairie dogs' ranks severely thinned by ranching, disease, and urban growth, America's most overlooked ecosystem is in serious trouble.
Yet now, momentum is building in some corners of the West to resuscitate the prairie and restore the biological diversity long ago lost to frontier settlement.
"If people could go back just 150 years to see the biological richness that existed on the Great Plains, they would be shocked," says Brian Miller, a board member of The Wildlands Project. "One of the costs of economic progress is that we've turned portions of the prairie into ecological deserts."
Importance of prairie dogs
At one time, prairie dog towns covered 10 percent of the Western short-grass prairie; today they occupy just 1 percent. As they have vanished, so, too, have a range of other creatures - from swift foxes and burrowing owls to mountain plovers. The black-footed ferret, which depends almost completely on prairie dogs, is now the most endangered land animal in North America.
Prompted by lawsuits aimed at protecting such species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently told states they have until 2001 to demonstrate they can stop prairie dog declines. In response, wildlife officials from 11 heartland states came together earlier this month in Rapid City, S.D., to discuss ways to keep the black-tailed prairie dog from being added to the Endangered Species list.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service is now tapping on the shoulders of the states with a velvet hammer, reminding them they better act, otherwise they will be facing a heavy hammer with having to comply with the Endangered Species Act," says John Sidle of the US Forest Service.
If the prairie dog were to be listed as endangered, it would affect a geographic area larger than that of any other terrestrial species yet given protection, potentially forcing significant changes in how both public and private lands are managed.
To rancher Allen Sedivy of Valentine, Neb., the whole move to protect prairie dogs - which he sees as pests - is a bit baffling.
"It seems to me like a lot of effort is being made for a situation that is really not a problem," he says. "At least in this part of the country, prairie dog numbers are healthy."
It's a pervasive sentiment among ranchers, and government agencies including the US Department of Agriculture are even helping them kill prairie dogs. But scientists say both the size and number of prairie-dog colonies are declining.
If incentives for tolerating prairie dogs were included in the next Farm Bill, Mr. Sedivy - and other ranchers - say they would be much more open to protection. But the motives of some conservationists give him pause.
"I take a little exception with the environmentalists who tend to want things the way they used to be," he adds. "They forget one important part of ecosystems: man.... It's hard for me to give much credibility to those who want to give the prairie back to the animals."
But some ranchers can play a vital part in the plains' renaissance. Although commercial livestock production has hastened the demise of prairie dogs, the problem can't be fixed simply by removing cattle, says Fritz Knopf, a scientist with the US Geological Survey in Fort Collins, Colo.
The Western shortgrass prairie, he notes, is the product of intensive grazing by bison. In the absence of bison, grass-eating animals, including strategically managed cattle, could play a positive role.
"In fact, eliminating cattle could make the problem worse because the prairie needs to be grazed both for the health of the grasses and the animals that evolved with it," Mr. Knopf says.
Some ranchers are even bringing back bison, recognizing the animals' intrinsic value, their lure as icons of ecotourism, and the market price for bison meat.
Nobody is saying that bison will reclaim their formerly dominant niche any time soon, but many Westerners have a hopeful outlook for the health of the Western prairie.
Says Jonathan Proctor of the Predator Conservation Alliance: "There are amazing opportunities in the ... prairie of the West."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society