Monday, October 18, 2004

Electoral dogfight erupts in South Dakota

A small rodent coud hold the key to the Senate

Times Online - World: "THE black-tailed prairie dog has never been a political animal. For centuries, on South Dakota’s vast and mysterious plains, it has played no part in the state’s momentous events. You will find no reference to it in accounts of how General George Custer’s troops were massacred at the Battle of Little Bighorn, or of the US Army’s bloody revenge on the Sioux at Wounded Knee.

But in a graphic demonstration of the axiom that all politics is local, South Dakota’s prairie dog, a fluffy, slightly gormless rodent, has suddenly landed an unwitting but potentially pivotal role in determining who will hold the balance of power in Washington after next month’s election. Aides to President Bush now seriously believe that this fat, squirrel-like creature, which infests large parts of South Dakota’s weirdly beautiful and haunting Badlands, might not only seal the fate of the top Democrat in Washington, but also help Republicans to keep control of the Senate.

There is one man, besides John Kerry, whom the White House wants to destroy politically on November 2: Tom Daschle, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, who is hoping that next month enough of South Dakota’s 470,000 registered voters will give him a fourth successive term in the Senate. The questions dogging Mr Daschle in his re-election fight are: does he truly hate prairie dogs, and if so, just how long has he hated them?

Mr Daschle, 56, is loathed by Republicans. They accuse him of being the architect of the Democrats’ obstructionist tactics in the Senate, which have stalled much of Mr Bush’s agenda. His defeat would all but extinguish Democrat hopes of overturning the Republicans’ three-seat majority in the Senate, and deal a huge psychological blow to Democrat ambitions in the next Congress. “It would be like picking up three extra seats,” one Republican strategist said.

In 1999, in a move that outraged South Dakota’s ranchers, a vocal minority that no politician dare offend, the US Government named the prairie dog, which destroys pastureland, as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. This was because prairie dogs are the prime food source of the federally protected black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America, which has been reintroduced on to the grasslands of the state’s south west.

For four years, unable to poison prairie dogs on federal land that borders their property, ranchers have watched the rodent’s population explode. Two years ago prairie dogs covered 13,000 acres of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. They now dominate 23,000 acres, invading private ranch land, destroying cattle-grazing pasture and threatening the farmers’ existence.

Two years ago Mr Daschle’s Senate opponent, John Thune, then a congressman, invited government officials from Washington to South Dakota to argue that prairie dog poisoning should be restarted. This year, it suddenly became clear to Mr Daschle that Mr Thune, 43, who came within 524 votes of winning South Dakota’s other Senate seat in 2002, was winning over the ranchers, not least with his prairie dog politics, and was now a serious electoral threat. "

* Prairie dogs are members of the squirrel family and related to chipmunks and marmots

* They can live for up to five years. Most have either a black or white tail, with yellowish fur and a white belly

* Known by ranchers as “sod poodles” after their high-pitched bark, prairie dogs are found in most of the western US

* Prairie dog families, made up of a male and several females, burrow close together to form towns. The biggest one, found in 1900, stretched 100 miles by 250 miles across the Texas high plains and housed 400 million dogs

* They are susceptible to bubonic plague, caught from fleas. There is a small risk that the fleas could pass the disease to humans

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