Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Groundhog Day revolt

The most influential teacher I had when I was a student at Echo High School, Jeanie (Robson) McCoy, used to love Groundhog Day. She used to say it was her favorite holiday.

I don't know if it's still her favorite holiday or not, but I wonder what her reaction would be to a move to rename Groundhog Day in the West to "Prairie Dog Day."

I didn't know there was any big controversy related to Groundhog Day until I got an e-mail from Lauren McCain, deserts and grassland program director for Forest Guardians.

According to the press release McCain sent, Forest Guardians and other conservation organizations have been working for four years to get the prairie dog some props each Feb. 2. The effort is an effort to promote the importance of the prairie dog in the Western ecosystems where it is found.

“Just as the groundhog predicts the duration of winter, the West’s ‘groundhog’ – the prairie dog – foretells the future of a community of wildlife dependent on prairie dogs for food and for the habitat they create,” McCain wrote.

And the effort appears to be gaining some momentum. Forest Guardians report that in 2006 both the Santa Fe, N.M., City Council and mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., officially declared Feb. 2 as Prairie Dog Day.

As a lifelong Westerner, I sort of like the idea of a Western critter getting some recognition, whether on Groundhog Day, or any other day for that matter. I have never seen a groundhog personally, as I suspect many of my neighbors haven't either. But then again, I'm not sure I've ever seen a prairie dog either.

Now, ground squirrels I've seen. I didn't know what a ground squirrel was until one day as a teenager when I was riding dirt bikes with a friend of mine on the farm/ranch he lived on near the Umatilla/Morrow counties line in Eastern Oregon. We were roaring off down some dirt road and came upon this area of rolling hills and grasslands beyond the fringe of the irrigated circles and dryland wheat fields. As I recall it, it was an area used to graze cattle that feature a huge covered concrete water tank (which would later serve as our own private swimming pool out in the middle of nowhere.

As we rode along, there was something odd about the landscape. I couldn't put my finger on it right away, but soon realized we were being watched. As we slowed and eventually stopped I realized that hundreds, no thousands, of little creatures were watching us. Some cautiously poked their heads out of holes in the earth. Others, a bit more distant, stood on all fours near their burrows. And still others, stood up on their hind quarters to eye the pair of noisy interlopers who had invaded their domains. Thousands of ground squirrels dotted the area. As we stopped our motorcycles, and got quiet, the furry little creatures resumed their activities, sprinting about or standing sentry over the rolling hills.

So, after reading about "Prairie Dog Day" I got to thinking, maybe there should be a campaign to have a "Ground Squirrel Day" too. But reflecting on a decade of more than a decade in California, most of that in the deserts there, I realized maybe each region should have it's own burrowing, ground-skittering critter to honor on Feb. 2.

How does "Lizard Day" grab you? Or maybe "Desert Tortoise Day" or "Borrowing Owl Day?"

Move over Punxsutawney Phil and make some room. You've got some competition.

I don't expect a lot of farmers and ranchers will hop on the bandwagon to support recognition or protection of prairie dogs or ground squirrels, animals that can damage crops or compete with livestock for rangeland grasses. What would be next, gophers?

Whether a critter is a loveable icon or a pest is strongly dependent on whether those critters live on your land or some far away place and only make an appearance once a year or so in search of its shadow to give you a prediction on the weather.

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