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Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Sen. Byron Dorgan is known as a prairie populist, but his sympathies do not extend to prairie dogs.

Dorgan, D-N.D., is assailing a plan to move a picnic area that has been taken over by prairie dogs. But a conservationist who specializes in prairie dogs says the senator is missing the bigger picture: the animals are crucial to a prairie ecosystem.

The National Park Service is considering a plan to move the Peaceful Valley picnic area in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, at a cost of $223,000, because prairie dogs have expanded into the area. The service says people could be bitten by the prairie dogs or trip over their holes.

On Tuesday, Dorgan sent the Park Service a letter calling the plan a waste of taxpayer money. "Move the prairie dogs!" wrote Dorgan, who usually rails more against big business than small mammals.

Park chief ranger Gary Kiramidjian said that wouldn't be a very easy task.

"It's not like rounding up bison or elk," he said. "I suppose you could use live traps … They're under the tables, they've completely invaded the picnic area."

Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the animals warranted protection as a threatened species, but said it had too many other species in more danger to take on protecting the prairie dog.

Jasper Carlton, executive director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, a Colorado-based group that has sued to try to get prairie dogs protected, called the animal a "keystone species" that affects over 100 other species in the ecosystem.

Animals such as the swift fox, burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk, mountain plover and black-footed ferret depend on the dogs for food or their holes for burrowing, he said.

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