Tuesday, October 7, 2014

In Memoriam: Farewell to Larry Haverfield, Conservation Hero

The black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America, found a courageous ally in Kansas rancher Larry Haverfield. (Photo: Audubon of Kansas)

With the passing of Kansas rancher and conservationist Larry Haverfield on September 21, 2014, I am reminded of the interview I conducted with Larry for my "Green State" column in the Emporia Gazette in 2010. Haverfield had recently help save the black-footed ferret from likely extinction in his latest battle in the courts. In memory of Larry and in gratitude for his work, which his wife and family will carry on with the same courage and commitment, I am re-posting that article here:

Antonia Felix
October 1, 2010

Ferrets Win In Kansas Court

They’re endangered, they’re vital to the prairie ecosystem—and they just beat the rap.

Last week a federal judge in Wichita issued a judgment that will protect the Kansas habitat of the black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America.

The judge ruled against Logan County, which sought to exterminate the prairie dog population on a private 10,000-acre ranch. Poisoning off the prairie dogs, which are the favorite prey of the black-footed ferret population that was reintroduced to the ranch in 2007, would have been a death sentence to the ferrets.

Ninety-eight percent of the prairie dog population of the Great Plains has been wiped out, and the remaining two percent are still subject to the “kill them all” statute put into play in 1901, when a pre-conservation mindset saw the near extermination of the state’s whitetail and mule deer, wild turkeys, bison, pronghorn elk and prairie dogs.

A handful of Kansas ranchers are committed to bringing black-footed ferrets back from the brink of extinction, including the owners of the Logan County ranch involved in last week’s court action. Working with a coalition of groups including Audubon of Kansas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), ranchers Larry and Betty Haverfield and Gordon Barnhardt reintroduced 14 black-footed ferrets onto their property in 2007. Another 10 were released into the adjoining Smoky Valley Ranch Preserve.

Home of the largest prairie dog complex in Kansas, the Haverfield-Barnhardt ranchland is ferret paradise.

The ranchers’ legal battles started in 2008 when they refused to allow Logan County exterminators to poison the prairie dogs on their property. A district judge recognized that the FSW had defined the ranch as a promising site for reintroduction of black-footed ferrets and slapped the county with a restraining order.

Logan County tried to repeal that ruling, but on September 20 Judge Jack Lively ruled that the restraining order would stand. The Haverfield-Barnhardt ranch and the 90-foot vegetative boundary that surrounds it are permanently off-limits to poisoning.

The prairie dogs are safe, at least from the county. They still have to contend with black-footed ferrets, golden eagles, burrowing owls, coyotes, ferruginous hawks and swift foxes, but Haverfield likes it that way.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “It’s nature’s way.” A healthy population of predators, combined with Haverfield’s method of frequently rotating his cattle’s grazing areas, has solved the problem of prairie dogs destroying wide patches of grassland on his ranch.

Randy Rathbun, the lawyer who represented the Haverfields, said the case was a matter of a federal law superseding state law. “The Endangered Species Act is the most broad legislation that any nation has ever passed to focus on endangered species,” he said, “and we had one of the most endangered mammals in the country. I didn’t see any way that a century-old statute was going to trump the Endangered Species Act.

Logan County’s aggressive stance on exterminating Haverfield’s property represents the “kill-them-all” prairie dog sentiment held by many ranchers. “The reason they were so intent on doing this treatment themselves,” said Rathbun, “is that they then try to charge this client back.” The county wanted to conduct multiple exterminations so that the bills would pile up and ultimately bankrupt the ranchers, he explained.

On top of constant pressure from the county, the Haverfields were sued by their neighbors, who claimed prairie dogs emigrated from their ranch. (The Haverfields, with help from Audubon of Kansas, have installed a fencing system that makes that impossible.) A judge threw out those suits.

“We don’t see very many people anywhere in the country who will withstand as much hostility as Larry Haverfield has, especially from the county,” said Audubon of Kansas executive director Ron Klataske.

I asked 74-year-old Haverfield where he and his fellow rancher Barnhardt get the strength to fight such prickly battles.

“It just happens Gordon and I are the same age,” he said. “When you’re that age, my feeling is, why not try to do the right thing? When you’re younger you have peer pressure and all that, but I don’t really feel that much at this point.”

Larry Haverfield, conservation hero. May we all grow so wise.