INTERVIEWEE: Russell Graves
INTERVIEWER: David Todd
DATE: February 1, 2022
LOCATION: Dodd City, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Trint, David Todd
SOURCE MEDIA: Ringr, MP3 audio file
David Todd [00:00:04] Good afternoon, David Todd, here. I am with Russell Graves and with his permission, Mr. Graves, we plan on recording this interview for research and educational work on behalf of the Conservation History Association of Texas and for a book and a web site for Texas A&M University Press, and for an archive at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin. And he would have all rights to use the recording as he sees fit as well.
David Todd [00:00:41] And I just want to make sure that’s, that’s OK with you and what you expected.
Russell Graves [00:00:45] Sounds good.
David Todd [00:00:46] All right. Well, let’s, let’s get started.
David Todd [00:00:50] It is February 1st, 2022. It’s about 2:45 p.m. Central Time. My name is David Todd. I am representing the Conservation History Association of Texas and I am in Austin. We are fortunate to be conducting a remote interview with Mr. Graves, who is based in the Dodge City, Texas, area. And he has worked as a teacher and an author and a photographer and a photography guide and workshop leader. And of particular interest for us, he’s an author who has published back in 2001 with Texas Tech Press, which put out his book, “This Prairie Dog: Sentinel of the Prairie”. And that book featured both Mr. Graves’ camerawork and his writing and the results of, of a lot of observation and research with the prairie dog. Today, we’ll talk about his life and career to date, and especially take the chance to focus on his work with the black tailed prairie dog.
David Todd [00:02:10] So thank you.
David Todd [00:02:11] And with that little introduction, I wanted to just launch into asking you about your upbringing. Would you please tell us about your childhood and if there might have been any people who were a big influence in your interest in working with animals and and prairie dogs in particular?
Russell Graves [00:02:33] You know, I think as I look back at my life and think about those instances and those people that really sort of set me on my path, if you will, of where I’m at today, you know, I think probably the best thing that my parents ever did was, I was born in Mesquite, Texas, in 1969. And obviously, Mesquite then was probably a, just a small-town outlier from Dallas. So grew up or was born in a small town. But I don’t remember – a small town at the time. I don’t remember living there, though, because when I was pretty young, I think maybe six, five or six, we moved to where my grandpa had a farm and that’s up in Fannin County, and happens to be where I live today. I just bought a farm that had been in my family for a while and, and built a house and moved back here from living in, in the Panhandle for 26 years.
Russell Graves [00:03:26] But when I moved here, you know, my, my granddad, as much as anything was a kind of a subsistence farmer. He, you know, I remember as a kid talk when to talk about this, it sounds like it’s, you know, grew up back in the thirties, but my grandpa had kind of that mentality. I mean, he was just a real frugal kind of guy and real practical kind of guy. And so he, he raised livestock and raised produce to, to survive primarily, and then secondarily sold what was left. And so when I was, and we lived, my parents bought a small piece of acreage right across the road from the farm that he had. And so I grew up around all that stuff and we, you know, I spent my days and my weekends and summers, just because I was geographically isolated from town. We lived about seven, seven miles north of town, I guess, from where I went to school.
Russell Graves [00:04:22] Because I was geographically isolated from my friends, you know, I mean, nature became my friend and being in the outdoors became my friend. And exploring the creek bottoms with my brothers and exploring them on my own is what I, what I just did. I mean, it’s just, it’s, it’s how I was raised. It was just a part of who I am. And I was telling this story really an hour ago to my wife, in front of my mom and dad, that when I was 18 years old, it was the day I was supposed to graduate high school and I was out taking pictures of of Indian blankets. I remember the story like it was yesterday, and when I first got interested in photography and I was out taking pictures of Indian blankets in a pasture that happens to be part of the farm that I ended up buying. And my dad had to come get me and said, “It’s time you got to go graduate.” And I’m like, “They’re going to give me the diploma one way or another. I just don’t want to go. I’d rather be out here taking pictures and stuff.”.
Russell Graves [00:05:18] And so really, to circle back to your question, it was, I guess, primarily my parents is what sort of influenced, just by moving me out to, moving the family out to where we, where we did, and where I was raised. And, you know, by proxy, of course, my, my grandparents and just everybody around me that sort of influenced that rural culture and that rural lifestyle that I’m still really fond of today.
David Todd [00:05:46] Yeah, I can see, and you’re rooted in it.
David Todd [00:05:52] So maybe we can move forward some in years. After you graduated, I don’t know if you actually ended up going to the ceremony and getting your diploma, but I know you, you managed to matriculate and go to East Texas State University. And I was curious if there were any classmates or teachers or, you know, events at school, courses you took, that might have led to your interest in nature and science and, and wildlife, including prairie dogs.
[00:06:28] You know, I did end up graduating. I went to my graduation that night and got my diploma. And, and, yeah, the next fall, in the fall of ’88, is when I started at, it was called East Texas State University, when I went there. They, I think a year or two after I graduated, is when the name changed to Texas A&M – Commerce. But went one semester at East Texas State University and I was actually, at the time, I was pretty talented at baseball, and so I had a chance to go play college baseball. I didn’t take up the opportunity. I kind of wanted to move on with my life. And, but I went, my first semester, I wanted to be a coach. And so that’s why I went to college my first semester. But I realized that that that wasn’t me after one semester.
Russell Graves [00:07:16] And so really to just to sort of get my grounding underneath me, I transferred away from East Texas State University and went for the next year and a half to Grayson College over in Denison, Texas. I just wanted to kind of bang out the basics and really figure out what the whole college experience was like. And then by the time I went back to East Texas State, I guess it would have been in, in the fall of ’89 is when I went back there and to finish my education. It’s when I knew I wanted to get a degree in agriculture. At the time, they didn’t have any kind of natural resources program or wildlife management program or anything like that.
Russell Graves [00:07:56] Really, my degree was a means to an end of it. If I have one big grift in life and I mean grift in a positive manner, I’m not a, I’m not a, you know, I’m not trying to take advantage of anybody. But my big hustle, I’ve always had in my life is to try to figure out a way that I could live in a small town, live in a rural area, and raise my family in a rural area like I was raised. You know, I didn’t have a family at the time, but I knew I’d have one and I knew, and I just knew how I wanted to be raised. I didn’t want the influence of having to make money. I didn’t want that to be such a strong influence that I had to move to the city or the suburbs somewhere.
Russell Graves [00:08:32] So, you know, in my mind, I thought, I don’t want to be a coach, but I think the way to accomplish what I want to accomplish is to just be a teacher. And so I thought, you know, I love nature, can’t be a nature teacher. I love agriculture because I was raised around that too, because my family had, you know, we raised cattle and, and did all the things that my grandparents did. So I thought I’d get a degree in agriculture. So in, in the fall of ’89, I set forth to get a degree in agriculture.
Russell Graves [00:09:02] And, you know, so, you know, again, there’s, you can’t, I don’t think I can make a direct link towards any professors. Just say, you know, the professor that influenced me to go write a book about prairie dogs or doing all the other things I’ve ever done before. But I can say definitively, you know, you don’t have those, I didn’t have those direct influences, but I can say definitively that I had influences nonetheless. And really, really what college and what professors like the late Dr. Reid, who taught agronomy, who was, you know, whether he asked me or not, he was a mentor of mine. And the late Dr. Don Crenshaw, who taught Ag Economics, he was a mentor of mine. And the late Dr. Crenshaw, who was a mentor of mine. I might have misspoken. Dr. Cawthon, who was ag economist, and Dr. Crenshaw was animal science.
Russell Graves [00:09:57] All those guys were a huge influence on me. And for one reason: when I went to college, coming from Dodd City, Texas, I graduated with, I think, 15 or 16 kids. I was fourth in my class. You know, I mean, I’ve always been, you know, I don’t mean to, to be self-aggrandizing when I say this, but I’ve always been pretty smart and I always knew I was pretty smart. I was always had a lot of common sense. Our family really instilled common sense into me and all my brothers. We just, we just know how to figure things out.
Russell Graves [00:10:28] And but when I went to college, I thought I was the dumbest kid in school. And those professors that I mentioned, they really encouraged me to really realize (and Dr. Larry Klingbeil was another) really made me realize that, you know, I had, God had given me some special gifts and, and he gave me the gift of being analytical and being able to think through problems, probably in a lot different way than other people think through problems. He gave me a creative mind to, to be able to, to showcase the world around me and make something that’s, you know, that, that sees the world in a different way than anybody else sees it. Not in a good way or bad way, but just a different way. And, and, and really, you know, encouraged me in that regard.
Russell Graves [00:11:22] And so, yeah, once I had the encouragement of those professors I had in college, I just realized that I’m being too hard on myself and I might be a little more talented than I gave myself credit for. So those guys are what gave me the encouragement, the springboard, you know, and I knew that photography and writing about nature was going to be a part of my life. But when you’re 22 years old and you’re getting out of college, you don’t know how big a part it’s going to be. But all of their encouragement, and even my, even my, my teachers I had in in high school and junior high and elementary. I went to a school, K through 12, which wasn’t a one room schoolhouse, but we all went to the same school. And there’s such a strong community of support there, from not only the students, you know, where you’ve got student mentors who are 10 years older than I am but looking out for us when we were little kids, to us doing the same thing when we graduated. And just the longevity of teachers we had – all the people that just cared about you outside your family. Really, I think in the end inspired me to just realize I could, I could do just about anything I wanted to do, as long as I was willing to commit and set my mind to it.
David Todd [00:12:28] You know, that’s interesting. I think a lot of times you, people, go to school and they think that it’s it’s all the problem sets and essays and books, but it may be not the content, but just the encouragement and the enthusiasm that people have for, you know, whatever skills you might bring to the table.
David Todd [00:12:52] You know, something that I’m always curious about, and maybe you can help, help me understand is that some people learn in classrooms and the library, and then others, they, they bring something home from, you know, sort of pieces of culture out there, whether it’s books that they read or, you know, movies they see, or TV shows they watch. Is that the case for you? Was there anything like that when you were young that might have turned you towards nature and science?
Russell Graves [00:13:24] Yeah, I mean, I can’t look back and think of any book that really inspired me. Then it was just more sort of the, the culture in which I grew up. The, the, you know, I have always been a huge fan of just of movies, and I just remember, to quote one in particular, and I’m not going to say it was the influence, but it’s something that definitely influenced me. It was a, was that Marty Stouffer’s “Wild America” or, or Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom”, those kind of wildlife shows. I would stop what I was doing when I was a kid and watch those things.
Russell Graves [00:14:01] The, this sounds, this sounds terrible for me to say this, but I think it was about 1986, I was in our school library at Dodd City and I picked up a Sports Afield magazine off the periodical shelf, and when I was thumbing through that, there was a story in there. It was just it wasn’t a feature story, but it’s just a, hey, this is what’s going on in the outdoors, kind of in the news section – front of the magazine kind of stuff. And it was a series of, I don’t know, five or six pictures that were taken in Denali National Park. And it was, and this is where it’s terrible for me to say this because I absolutely I don’t remember the guy’s name, but I absolutely don’t want to, don’t want to talk like his death was something that was special or transformative in my life. But it was, it was a picture, the last pictures the guy took. And he was a wildlife photographer, and he took pictures of a grizzly bear with two cubs and that grizzly bear charged and killed him.
Russell Graves [00:14:58] And I remember having the thought in my mind about how terrible that was, primarily, but number two, how cool that must be to go in to the wild, in the wild places like that, and see animals like that. And so, you know, it’s just little bits and pieces throughout my life that have kind of, always kind of inspired me. And, and really just, you know, I’ve mentioned it before: my whole thing is I want to be a, I want it to be a one-percenter in terms of how I live my lifestyle. But I also wanted to be a one-percenter in terms of the experiences that I got to do and still get to tell those stories that, you know, got to go do this, and most people don’t. And not that I’m any more special anybody else, but I made the effort, and made the effort my whole life to go experience things like I read in that magazine when I was 16 years old or when I watched Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom,” or, or, or Marty Stouffer movies or Marty Stouffer TV shows or any of those kind of things.
Russell Graves [00:15:55] So to answer your question directly, it wasn’t necessarily one book or one thing, it was really just sort of a lot of things that sort of culminated to just combine my love of the outdoors and nature with the natural abilities I was given as a storyteller to some regard, in some regard, whether it’s written, or spoken, or with a camera, or whatever else. But, but from just purely from a photography standpoint, I can tell you one of my biggest influences that I had was, or two of the biggest influences I had – I couldn’t pick up one of my cameras today and make a picture with it. And I don’t mean that as a slight to them, but when, when I started first started taking pictures as a teenager, I remember my dad, someone who gave him a subscription, a gift subscription to “Texas Parks and Wildlife” magazine. And one night at dinner. And he doesn’t remember this, but I remember clearly – one night at dinner, he slides this magazine over to me, and it had a picture, it had pictures in there of Monahan Sandhills State Park. And then it had another story, I’m trying to think of the other story. But anyway, the Monahan Sandhills State Park is what I remember the most about it. And he slid that magazine over to me and he said, “When you can start getting pictures in this magazine, you’re really doing something.”
Russell Graves [00:17:12] And so that was kind of that’s when “Texas Parks and Wildlife” became like my “National Geographic”. I just wanted to see, take pictures for that magazine. And when it came time, when I thought I was ready, I started sending my pictures off and they’d get rejected pretty quick. You know, I’m 17 years old doing this, trying to get pictures in a magazine, statewide magazine. And they got rejected so quick, they almost beat me home from the trip to the post office in town.
Russell Graves [00:17:39] And my second influence was my mom just encouraged me not to give up, you know, just keep at it, and it’ll, it’ll hit for you one day.
Russell Graves [00:17:46] So, you know, influences come from all over the place.
David Todd [00:17:53] That’s great. You know, you, you described yourself kind of in passing, and it sort of caught my ear, as a storyteller. And, and I was hoping that you could help us understand a little bit about that aspect of your personality by explaining how you got started both, I guess you’ve sort of had two different careers – one as a, as a teacher, and then the other as a, as a freelance photographer and photography guide and writer. Can you give us an idea of how you got started on those two different tracks?
Russell Graves [00:18:37] Yeah. So, you know, the photography bug hit me at a young age. And you know, I showed a, and I mean, again, I’m not trying to be self-aggrandizing when I say this, but I mean, I showed an early affinity for being able to do that. And so, when I was, and so early on, I was trying to figure out how to, how to, how to be in magazines. And so, and, you know, this is pre-email and pre-internet, and so I did did the only thing I knew to do in my mind. I wrote letters to guys like David Sams and Wyman Meinzer and Grady Allen and some of those photographers that I saw a lot in “Texas Parks ..” (Steve Benson’s another) – some of those names that I saw a lot in “Texas Parks and Wildlife” magazine. And I said, “What kind of advice can you give a, you know, I’m 17 years old, and I want to do what you do, what kind of advice could you give me?”
Russell Graves [00:19:35] And all those guys that I mentioned wrote me back. One guy didn’t write me back, but I won’t mention his name. But those guys I mentioned all wrote me back, and I still get those letters today and just kind of give me encouragement, and telling me, “You know, here’s what you can do. And here’s, here’s the way you need to look at it.” And really, again, being another source of encouragement.
Russell Graves [00:19:55] So when I was, when I was 19 years old, I had my first pictures, an article in a magazine. And I got a check a couple of weeks later for 73 dollars. And I thought, If you can make a living doing this, or if you can make money doing this, I’m in. Because someone had told me in one of those letters, they said, “You know, you can, you can do good as a photographer if you’re good, but really, where, where you start doing really good if you can write and photograph.”.
Russell Graves [00:20:23] Well, from the time I was young, and this is where I credit my elementary and my junior high teachers and my high school teachers, from the time I was young, I just had a natural ability to write stories. I was always on the academic, UIL teams for competitive or creative writing and ready writing and all those things. They always put me on all those teams. And so I had a natural aptitude to write.
Russell Graves [00:20:45] In fact, when I, you know, now I’m telling the story and reliving this, I remember when I was a freshman in college in East Texas State University, and I can’t remember her name, but my freshman English college professor, they gave us a writing assignment. I wrote it. And then after class one day, she says, “Can I talk to you for a second?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Who wrote this?” And I said, “I wrote it.” She’s like, “No, you didn’t.” And I said, “I did.” And she said to me, another, you know, this is I wish I remembered her name because this was encouraging for me, too. She said that, “I’ve been a professor…”, I don’t know, like 10 years or 12 years, whatever the number was, it wasn’t, she hadn’t been there 50 years, but she wasn’t a beginner either. She said, “I’ve been here this X many years and I’ve never had a freshman student, right out of high school, be able to write as well as you write and tell a story like you could tell. Can I put this in in a little, some kind of, academic journal?” I don’t know what it was. Again, I wasn’t paying attention. I just said, “Sure.”
Russell Graves [00:21:44] And so I knew that I had the ability to write. And then to be able to, to, to write the story and be able to provide my own photographs, again, when I, when I did that at 19 and thought, “Man, if you can make money doing this, I got to do this more.” Because the entrepreneurial part of me kicked in, too. And so when I was 20, I had my first magazine cover. And, and the whole time I dated my wife, my wife, Christy, she and I have been married for going on 29 years now. We started dating when we were 20. The whole time I dated her, the entrepreneurial part in me, I made my money on Sunday afternoons. I would go to this, this friend of mine, I became friends, his name was Larry McFarland, he raised bucking bulls, as his agricultural enterprise. And every Sunday afternoon, he would let every wannabe bull rider in the county come ride his bulls because it gives them practice.
Russell Graves [00:22:37] Well, I would show up and take pictures of them riding the bulls and then go back the next week with four by six prints I got developed at Wal-Mart and I’d sell them back to them for two or three bucks apiece. And that’s the way I financed the whole, my whole courtship with my wife. It’s how I paid our dates.
Russell Graves [00:22:53] And so, you know, at the same time, I had this parallel lifestyle going on where I was, where I was in college trying to get a degree in agriculture. And so when I, when I graduated in ’93 and was engaged to be married, my dad said, “Don’t plan on getting a job until unless you … don’t plan on getting married unless you have a job and you can support your wife.”.
Russell Graves [00:23:16] And so I went to Childress, Texas, for the single reason is they said the magic words to me, “You’re hired.” And so while I was learning to become an ag teacher and learning how to become a good ag teacher, at the same time, I was learning the business of photography and learning how to be a better photographer. And that’s, when I look back at my life, that’s how I define my 20s. That’s what I was doing – trying to become the best teacher I could, and trying to become the best photographer and writer that I could, and working on both of those things simultaneously while I had a new job living in a new place with a brand new wife. And that was kind of the pre-kid era before we started having children. But that’s, that’s what I spent my 20s doing, just really trying to be focused on, you know, what my goals were.
Russell Graves [00:24:02] You know, I don’t, I come from blue collar stock. My dad was a welder by trade, ran a, drove a truck for a while. He ran a sand and gravel plant for a while for, you know, a company that owned a sand and gravel mining operation right across the river. And so I come from blue collar stock. I mean, he, he just taught me how to work, and I’ve got it.
Russell Graves [00:24:24] My mom was a stay-at-home mom. I’m the youngest of five kids and she taught me what dedication meant. And so between those two lessons, I learned this. I just put my nose to the grindstone and just try to figure it all out.
David Todd [00:24:38] Well, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s interesting. I think some people figure that their education ends when they leave school. But it sounds like you have been teaching yourself ever since you got out.
David Todd [00:24:54] So one of the things that you taught yourself about, I guess, is the prairie dog. And I was hoping that you might tell us how you first saw and got interested in prairie dogs.
Russell Graves [00:25:08] Well, so when I moved to the, when I moved to Childress in the southeast corner of the Texas Panhandle, you know, one of the things that enchanted me, my wife and I, she, when she, when we got married, she got hired at the elementary school. And so we both worked for the school system out there. And on weekends, and again, this is pre-children. But and we didn’t know a lot of people when we first moved out there. And so on weekends, she and I would take some kind of adventure. We’d go drive around, you know, and see a state park like Caprock Canyon State Park and hike around there, or in Palo Duro Canyon State Park and hike around it.
Russell Graves [00:25:45] Because for someone who grew up at the, at the, where the Blackland Prairies meet the Post Oak Savanna, and right at the edge where the Piney Woods start, it was just like a, it was like being on the moon for me, not in a bad way, but it’s just all, everything I’m seeing, I’d never seen before. The canyon lands and the open country, and, you know, just the stark beauty that’s the, that’s the High Plains and the rugged beauty that’s the Rolling Plains.
Russell Graves [00:26:18] And I was able to access that every single weekend that I could. And a lot of times, I’m not ashamed to admit it, I would take off work because they gave us personal days that we could take at school. You take a day off, or I think we had three or four at the time, you take these days off, no questions asked, just do what you want to do. And I would do that, and go explore somewhere that I hadn’t been before.
Russell Graves [00:26:38] And in that exploration, I’d start seeing these animals I’d never seen before. You know, there are turkeys here now, but they weren’t then, when I grew up, but all of a sudden started seeing wild turkeys and, and, and pronghorn antelopes and ring-necked pheasants and all those, all those species that are that are typical in the, in the western Texas.
Russell Graves [00:27:01] And it just so happens, prairie dogs are one of them. And not growing up around prairie dogs, I became pretty fascinated with them back in my 20s when I first started seeing them. And let me, and I’ll add one more thing to that, and I remember being in a Lions Club presentation because it doesn’t take long, in a small town, these civic clubs are starved for programs. And, you know, I’m not going to say I was particularly good at photography, or particularly good at giving a presentation, or particularly good at public speaking. But I was just fresh meat for those guys, and so I’d get invited to go speak to the Rotary Club about once every three months or the Lions Club about once, every three months.
Russell Graves [00:27:44] And I remember doing a little presentation, and this was one before digital photography, I’ve just got a slide, slide projector there with a carousel full of slides, showing pictures of stuff I’d been seeing. And after the, after the Lions club meeting one day, guy with whom I’m still friends, his name is Steve Bird. He’s an attorney in town. And he says, “I’ve got a prairie dog town, on my, on my farm, just North of town. I mean, a mile from, a mile from town, there’s a prairie dog town. Go out there any time you want, take pictures of them.” So I did.
Russell Graves [00:28:16] And just start to become fascinating, fascinated with the animals and, you know, saw it as a good educational opportunity for the kids to have kind of an outdoor lab and be able to do some things that were that were really, from, from an agriculture education and from an educational standpoint in general, it gave us the ability to do things that, you know, schools elsewhere weren’t doing.
Russell Graves [00:28:38] Well, and, and when you went out to see these prairie dogs, I’d be curious what, what you learned about their life cycle and, and then also their, their whole social structure – I mean, how these colonies, these prairie dog towns, work. They, they seem just busy, teeming with, with communication and activity. And you know, if you could sort of give us a little introduction to the prairie dog in its world, that would be great.
Russell Graves [00:29:07] Yeah. So, so first of all, I’m a sucker for rodents. You know, I loved, when I was a kid exploring the woods in Fannin County, I just loved squirrels. I just thought they were the coolest little animals. And all of a sudden, you’ve got these ground squirrels called prairie dogs out there that I discovered that were even more fascinating to me.
Russell Graves [00:29:27] So, you know, as I’d go out, they’re really an animated creature. They’re, like you mentioned, they’re, they’re social animals. They live in, they live in actually smaller family units called coteries, but you can think of, you know, like a, like a subdivision. All those people in the subdivision may live in the same subdivision, but they don’t necessarily know each other or like each other, but they just happen to live together in that small area. Well, prairie dogs are the same way I found out. You know, they, they’ve got their own little, little neighborhood that them and their family lives in and their neighborhood is right next to another coterie’s neighborhood. And that’s what the, the small groups are called is just a coterie of prairie dogs.
Russell Graves [00:30:07] And, you know, and so, just by, just by paying attention to them and learning about them, all of a sudden you start, I start dispelling myths in my mind as I’m reading about them and learning about them. And the first one is, you know, people go to a prairie dog town and they think all the, all the tunnels that the prairie dogs dig are interconnected, and that’s just not the case. And I learned it trying to figure it out one day because in my country boy logic, I took a 50-gallon barrel of water out to one because I thought, I’m going to pour it in one hole and see if it comes out of another hole that’s kind of downhill a little bit.
Russell Graves [00:30:41] Well, it took about 10 gallons of water to fill up that one hole. Well, I go back and start looking at the research and find out that, well, they’re not interconnected. So that’s a, that’s a piece of the story I can start telling people. You know, that’s one little nugget I can start telling people as they want to hear about the, the wildlife of the plains.
Russell Graves [00:30:57] And, you know, just, just learning how they, you know, and the more time I spent with them, learning how they, how they vocalize with one another. And, and they’ve got this complex vocabulary that, that they when they speak prairie dog, you know, they can speak it to the whole, one prairie dog can warn the whole town about impending danger and how that travels around the town. And, and that, just like, you know, they’ve got, they’re like us.
Russell Graves [00:31:23] They’ve got different words for, for different things they see. They’ve got one, we can’t pick it up, but just in the nuance of their calls, they’ve got one word that means a, I mean, not literally, means a person, but it identifies that, you know, the threat level. And they’ve got another word if a badger shows up that they can, because of voice inflection, and I guess some coded prairie dog language, and this has been empirically proved with evidence that they can, there’s a, there’s a different sound they make for a badger as opposed to a person.
Russell Graves [00:31:54] And just starting to learn those nuggets was really, really, to me, was fascinating. And it was fascinating on several levels. One, it was just from a, just from a, just a naturalist standpoint. And being an amateur naturalist, it was fascinating to learn as much I could. From a storytelling standpoint too, it’s kind of cool just to know a little bit more than someone else does about something, and be able to to tell them what you know and, and, you know, use that, use just that little bit of natural knowledge as a vehicle to start conversation and to start, you know, explaining the natural world around people that most people, not for, you know, not for good or bad reasons, most people just don’t pay attention to stuff like that.
Russell Graves [00:32:35] And then as I, as I kind of went through that process, I started really questioning, you know, if, if everybody’s wrong about, if everybody’s wrong in regards to prairie dogs about their burrows being interconnected, what else could they be wrong about? And the one thing that I kept scratching my head about is on this 10-acre prairie dog town, North of Childress that I was seeing with my own eyes. You’d hear these, you’d read in old-time literature and you’d actually hear people say, “Well, cows and horses break their legs and prairie dog towns and, you know, they’re bad on the rangelands and they’re, they’re, you know, they just don’t belong in the rangelands because of the damage they do.” And you can’t have a marriage between an agricultural enterprise and a prairie dog town at the same time.
Russell Graves [00:33:20] But I’m seeing with my own eyes these cattle that, that graze within the prairie dog town, and they never get hurt. And so, and then, and then thinking a little bit deeper, because of all the stuff I try to learn about the natural world in the Panhandle, you realize there used to be a bison herd of, of 10 million head of bison when the whole Panhandle was one giant prairie dog town. And that whole Southern Plains ecosystem, or the whole Great Plains ecosystem, supported one of the largest biomasses the world’s ever seen, with all the grazing animals like the pronghorn and the bison that roamed up and down the plains. But yet it had this critical component called the prairie dog that lived amongst them.
Russell Graves [00:34:03] So from again, from, I mentioned common sense before, from a common-sense and logical standpoint, it didn’t make sense to me. Look, how could we read these historical accounts about a prairie dog town being 250 miles long and 120 miles wide that was overlaid right in the heart of buffalo country or bison country? The two things wouldn’t seem congruent if everything I’ve heard about prairie dogs is true.
Russell Graves [00:34:27] And so from there, it just, it just, I started trying to learn more and more and more about the subject. And really, it is, as a cheap way for me to learn more, I just got my students involved and we started doing research on that same prairie dog town I keep mentioning to try to figure out. Are they bad on range lands? Or are they good on range lands? Or what’s, what’s kind of the bigger story here?
Russell Graves [00:34:50] And that’s, that’s sort of, those are the things of my personal work and me just photographing a unique species and starting to question some of the, you know, I guess, the opposite of urban myth is a rural myth. And hearing some of these rural myths about the impact of prairie dogs on rangelands really kind of kind of led me to do a deeper dig on them. And that’s, that’s what led to the book ultimately.
David Todd [00:35:13] That’s so interesting. You know, you hear about urban legends like, you know, the, the albino alligator that moves through the subways in New York City. But I guess, you know, we’re all prone to misunderstanding things and there, there are rural myths, too, I guess, and some of them may involve the prairie dog.
Russell Graves [00:35:33] You told us a little bit about the prairie dog life history, and it’s, it’s sort of communal structure. And I was hoping that you could also talk a little bit about this ecological role that you touched on, you know, this kind of connection between the bison country and the prairie dog country. I understand that prairie dogs have other roles, and I guess some people consider it a keystone. Would you agree?
Russell Graves [00:36:04] Yeah. So I don’t remember the exact number, but there’s several dozen species that scientists, not me, but scientists, have really, really been able to define that prairie dogs have a direct impact on their livelihood where they’re found. For example, you know, you go to the Plains and the one place, or the place you’re going to find most of the burrowing owls that you find out there are going to be in prairie dog towns. If you’re, if you’re driving Highway 82 through Ralls, Texas, where Highway 82 meets, I think it’s Highway 62 that goes north to Floydada and ends up going from Floydada to Matador, through Childress over in Oklahoma. Yes, it’s Highway 62. Where 62 and 82 intersect there in Ralls, Texas just 30 miles east of Lubbock, there’s a prairie dog town right there. And it may be one of the best places in the world to see burrowing owls because they see cars going by all the time. And when you can pull off the side of the road and look at them from 15 feet away, it’s pretty amazing. But that prairie dog town is the reason one of those burrowing owls are there.
Russell Graves [00:37:15] And you can start naming in a lot of other species too. The mountain clover benefit from prairie dogs. The, it happened for a few reasons, but the, you know, one of the most endangered and rare mammals in the country, the black-footed ferret, it almost seeks exclusively on prairie dogs. So as the prairie dog numbers started to dwindle on the Plains, then it hurt the, the black-footed ferret numbers and those numbers started to plummet over time.
Russell Graves [00:37:46] And so, you know, from a historic standpoint, like I’d mentioned earlier, the bison, the pronghorn antelope and all those grazing, all those grazing species that benefited from the soil disturbing action of black-tailed prairie dogs again, yeah, makes them a keystone species.
Russell Graves [00:38:05] So in other words, even though the bison are, are gone the way we used to think about bison from a historical perspective, they’re just not there anymore. Pronghorn, there we go. But if you take out, if right now, if you take out, like I mentioned, at Ralls if you take out the prairie dogs, those owls will be there for a little while longer because they’re living in abandoned burrows. But over time, because you don’t have that constant renewal, the constant digging of new burrows as old burrows collapse, then over time, all those animals.
INTERVIEWEE: Russell Graves
INTERVIEWER: David Todd
DATE: February 1, 2022
LOCATION: Dodd City, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Trint, David Todd
SOURCE MEDIA: Ringr, MP3 audio file
Russell Graves [00:00:01] You know, you see killdeer most in suburban areas in gravel parking lots where the ground is open and they can kind of skitter around and look for food. Well, they do the same thing in prairie dog towns. So you take the prairie dog town out of the mix because it is a keystone species and it starts to collapse the, the ecosystems of all those other species as well around them. And so I think for anything, that’s why they’re the most, that’s why they’re so important of a species in, in Texas.
David Todd [00:00:28] So, so it sounds like the prairie dogs, I guess, provide two things: I mean, one, burrows that give these other animals some shelter. I mean, I guess like a burrowing owl, but then also, maybe some, some food, I mean, prey for the black-footed ferret.
Russell Graves [00:00:50] Yeah.
David Todd [00:00:51] And then you were talking earlier about the mountain plover. How would a prairie dog benefit a plover?
Russell Graves [00:00:59] Just providing those, those open areas, you know, because a plover, you think of a plover as like a killdeer, as kind of a, a, sort of a, you know, a wetlands bird or a coastal bird. But those things, you know, when they’re, when they’re migrating back and forth, they need those habitats to kind of, you know, obviously not the water there, but just a similar type of habitat to be able to forage for food. So it needs to be open. It can’t be the short grass or the tall grass like they’re used to.
Russell Graves [00:01:28] You know, one of the things that, that we used to do when I was teaching, and look, and I’ll be, I’ll be crystal, crystal clear about this. It’s not like that me and these kids were trying to defend a doctoral thesis, we’re just using simple observational methods, you know, simple scientific methods, just to, just to record our findings on this 10-acre prairie dog town. But for like ten years, I would take kids out every spring and we’d do a few, on the same prairie dog town for 10 years, we’d do the same basic observations every single year and we did this, did it the same way. And we would, we would measure the town using GPS. We would just do an outline of the town when we’d first go out there. And that way over time, we could see, and if we even, if we were to animate it, it would have been cool. You could see how the town would ebb and flow in terms of its size and shape. It wasn’t a static entity – the town wasn’t. You know, in good years when you’d have more prairie dogs, the town would get a little bigger and the boundaries would change. When in lean years, it might get a little smaller and the boundary would change. So it was fascinating to look at that.
Russell Graves [00:02:35] We also did our best guess and would mark with GPS the active versus inactive burrows within that town, and, and just again, to show that how dynamic the town is from a, I mean, the town itself is living and breathing.
Russell Graves [00:02:52] And, you know, we’d do other things like we’d measure the soil infiltration rate. In other words, we would measure how, we, you know, we had the question, “Do prairie dogs affect how fast water infiltrates back into the soil when it rains?” And so we’d test infiltration rates both in the town and outside the town on like soil types, where the prairie dogs hadn’t colonized yet, and see if there was a difference.
Russell Graves [00:03:18] We would test the forage quality and quantity in the town versus outside the town, on, on, on identical soil types, and that was a key part just to keep consistency in our observations, and to see if there was any difference in soil quantity and quality that the prairie dogs influenced, you know, again, in the town as opposed to outside the town.
Russell Graves [00:03:41] We would take observational, or we do observations and record the number, the kind of animals we saw in the town when we visited. We were doing at the time, we had a, I’m going blank on the name, but anyway we had a reference point, a T-post in the ground, and we would take a reference picture of the prairie dog town every single year when we were out there.
Russell Graves [00:04:06] So we’d spend about two months a year with this one class I taught, going out every single day, weather permitting, and taking these observations on these prairie dog towns, and then just trying to understand more about them.
Russell Graves [00:04:18] And one thing we did for several years, it was kind of cool is I got a grant, I actually got a couple of, I got several grants, but a couple of noteworthy ones. One grant provided us with a, with a fiber optic probe that we could put down in the holes and look at the prairie dogs in the burrows. And that was just, that wasn’t, that was cool, not from a scientific standpoint, but just from a practical standpoint that you could take people out there and say, “Let’s go look at prairie dogs in the holes!” It was kind of neat like that.
Russell Graves [00:04:46] But you know, we got a grant to, to buy some GPS collars. And because the ultimate question we tried to figure out is, because through all the, through all the data that we would collect, we started figuring out that inside the prairie dog town, they did indeed, in fact affect the, the, the plant quantity. So in other words, the pounds of forage per acre was less inside the prairie dog town that we found, as opposed to like soil types outside the prairie dog towns. But, and here’s, this is the big “but”: if you look at, if you look at numbers like crude protein and total digestible nutrients and all those things that cattlemen really focus in on when they’re trying to determine the best rations to feed their cattle, the forage inside the prairie dog towns was far superior than the forage outside of the prairie dog town.
Russell Graves [00:05:38] So it came down to nutrient density and caloric density. You know, we can get full by eating ice cream all day, but a well-balanced meal that includes maybe some protein and salads is a lot better for us. And so, just from a, you know, not a scientific standpoint, but from a practical standpoint, we figured out that inside the prairie dog town, yeah, they didn’t get as much food to eat, but it was better food for them, and the cattle probably did better.
Russell Graves [00:06:05] And then using those GPS collars that we put on cattle, we could turn cattle loose on these ranges for 90 days at a time. And when we took the collars off, it would give us a latitude and longitude location, as well as was their head up, or was their head down. And so we could determine all over these ranches where these cattle moved around because it would take a, would take a position for each cattle, each cow that we had a collar on every 10 minutes. And we were able to, over time, over a 90-day block of time (and we did 90 days because the batteries on the collars would run out), we’d gather the cattle up with the assistance of the local rancher who would help us out, we’d gather the cattle up, take the collars off, and then we didn’t have the equipment to do it, but with the assistance of the Texas Cooperative Extension Service out of Vernon, we’d send them their collars because they had the expensive piece of equipment that was the, that was the interface that would allow you to download this data. And so we’d send that, those collars to them and they would download the data in an Excel spreadsheet and we could put it, use Excel to start being able to graphically analyze the data.
Russell Graves [00:07:08] What we figured out with all those data points was the livestock that we collared and we’re, you know, I feel comfortable in making, in extrapolating to say all livestock, but the livestock we collared didn’t shy away from the prairie dog towns. And so that told us that, you know, they weren’t worried about their safety and getting their legs broken. But it also didn’t, they didn’t spend any more time in the town than they did outside the town. So what it told us is, is it was just another piece of ground for them. They were going to graze it when they were nearby, but they weren’t going to spend any, you know, they were going to spend any extra time in it. But they weren’t avoiding it at all costs anyway.
Russell Graves [00:07:49] So, and that was really a light bulb moment for me because all of sudden you start telling this story and you start showing people and even the rancher who is intimately knowledgeable about his land. He would say, “I don’t think, I don’t think cows go out in the prairie dog town. I think they avoid it.” And once we were able to show him with the data, it surprised him. So then, you know, at least in the circles I’m in, it started bringing up a whole new conversation of, “Are they as bad as what we thought we thought they were?” And the question is, I just I don’t think they were.
Russell Graves [00:08:19] Because if you look from a historical standpoint, I mentioned this before with how it supported the bison and the grazing ecology of the plains and the prairie dogs were out there. I don’t, I don’t think that it, it really necessarily in towns, on ranches where prairie dog towns were found, I don’t think it really hurt the ranch, and I don’t necessarily think it helped it either. It was just part of the ecosystem.
Russell Graves [00:08:42] And when you start, I found when I started talking to people in that regard, it started making sense to a lot of people who had prairie dog towns on their place that, you know, maybe there’s a different way of looking at this situation then we just got to get rid of prairie dogs.
David Todd [00:09:00] You know, it sounds like you and your students were really serious, long-term, patient observers of these prairie dog towns.
David Todd [00:09:12] I was hoping that you might be able to tell us about other folks who’ve looked at them over the years. I think, of course, the Native Americans were probably students of prairie dogs. What, what do you think they saw? Or maybe some of the early Western explorers like Captain Marcy and Captain Lewis or naturalists like Vernon Bailey? Do you recall what, what their impressions were of these, these funny little rodents.
Russell Graves [00:09:44] You know, from, from what I researched when I wrote the book. It was the Spaniard, Cabeza de Vaca, who first came across the prairie dogs as he wandered around looking for the, just exploring the, the continent. And then it was, it was during the Lewis and Clark expedition is when it finally got its name, when they first, or when they first called it a barking squirrel that they found and, you know, made a scientific record of it. And then its first name was, and my French pronunciation is terrible, but “petit chien”, which means “little dog”. And so, you know, in those early days of the 18, the early 1800s is when, you know, it first got scientific attention.
Russell Graves [00:10:40] And as far as your question about the, the, the way that the natives kind of, kind of revered it, I didn’t really look at that, that close, and I didn’t really study it all that much. Not that it wasn’t important, but you know, a lot of those cultures was just, was just, it was a spoken culture. There was not much literature to read. But, you know, I know that just, again, from a practical and common-sense standpoint, when you’re a nomadic tribe like the Comanches or the Kiowas, or the Cheyennes or any of those tribes that lived out there, the prairie dogs were important to them for one specific reason. It may not be mythical reasons or mystical reasons. But there’s a source of food in a place where food was sometimes hard to find. And so being a rodent, you know, I’m told, I’ve never eaten a prairie dog, but I’m told it tastes like squirrels. I’ve eaten squirrels before, just because it’s the, the culture where I grew up was squirrel hunting was a big part of the culture.
Russell Graves [00:11:35] And so, you know, really, I think from what I can tell, early on, once that, you know, it was first discovered and entered in scientific record in the early 1800s. You know, it got its, in the early 1800s, it got its scientific name established. It was actually, it’s actually named after Lewis of the, you know, of, of Lewis, Meriwether Lewis in honor of him, since he’s the one that first brought it.
Russell Graves [00:12:02] But over time, you know, it was kind of not really thought much about until the West started being settled. And it was, it was the early 20th century, you know, 1904, 1905 was when the federal government got involved as the plains were being settled and being settled in earnest. And that’s when the war on the prairie dog really began – state-sponsored kind of war on prairie dogs.
David Todd [00:12:29] Well, and that’s something that I’d really like to learn more about. It sounds like they, these prairie dogs covered literally millions of acres, and had maybe hundreds of millions of individuals. And yet, I think by 1998, National Wildlife Federation recognized they were in serious decline and even petitioned for threatened status under the Endangered Species Act and that’s, that is a long fall, a big decline. And I was curious if you could help us understand what the source of the change was in their population and their range?
Russell Graves [00:13:13] Yeah. So, at the time, the way I understand it, is that the prairie dog, the black-tailed prairie dog (there’s five species of prairie dogs, so the one we’re talking about what we see in Texas is the black-tailed prairie dog), and at the time, the black-tailed prairie dog range had been reduced by 98 percent, so there’s two percent of the original range left in the wild. And so a lot of conservation groups, the National Wildlife Federation in particular, and like you said, this was in 1998, they, they petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the black-tailed prairie dog is a threatened species under the Endangered Species, under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act.
Russell Graves [00:13:54] And when doing that, you know, the whole thought was it would, it would usher in a level of protection to just really stop the wholesale destruction of the species. And you know, again, based on the facts we talked about earlier, it’s a keystone species. And those keystone species are, it’s not only important to save them, but all the animals that are associated with them. When you affect, again, when you affect the prairie dogs, you affect all the other animals that live with it.
Russell Graves [00:14:19] So the, the National Fish Wildlife Service petition to be listed, that’s about the time I started working on the book. And so, as best I can remember at the time, what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined was it’s, it’s warranted to be listed. In other words, they thought it deserved to be listed, but they precluded it from listing because they wanted the states to figure out themselves, the states were black-tailed prairie dogs were found, they wanted the states to figure out themselves how to conserve the species without attaching this wholesale blanket threatened species status on the species.
Russell Graves [00:14:59] And so from there, you know, the ones I worked with the closest at the time, I say closest, not, I didn’t work, I wasn’t part of the group, but just understanding what they were doing was, was like the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. They put together a working group and just brought in stakeholders and with interests from farming and ranching groups, to, from farming and ranching groups to wildlife biologist to conservation groups, and everybody else, just brought them to the table and said, you know, “Hey, we got to figure this out or the feds are going to do it for us.”.
Russell Graves [00:15:38] And I’m always a proponent of local solutions. You know, I think, I think those people out in West Texas who own big parcels of land know more about what’s best for their land, as opposed to what a blanket federal, over-arching, a blanket, federal heavy-handed federal bureaucracy can tell them what to do. And so they just put everybody on the same page and said, you know, we just got to stop the decline of this animal.
Russell Graves [00:16:07] And part of that stopping the decline was, you know, we’ve got to start thinking differently about what we think about these and really start looking back at the federal government’s approach to it from the time they declared war on the prairie dog to today, and how we can look at this species in a different light and not feel like that, if you have prairie dogs, you’ve got to wipe them out.
Russell Graves [00:16:31] And so I think in large part, that’s what they did, because it is not, I mean, it’s not listed as a threatened species. There’s only two species of prairie dog, which is the Utah and the Mexican prairie dog that are listed as a threatened or endangered species. But the black-tailed prairie dog is not. And I think, not, I mean, not only, you know, I tell people this a lot, and I think in a lot of ways we’re kind of living in the good old days of wildlife conservation in Texas, because the ethics of the landowners change to the degree I think that people see value now more in wildlife species than they ever had before.
Russell Graves [00:17:07] So at the time, and I don’t want to name them by name, but all of a sudden you hear ranchers who kind of like, “I’d like to have prairie dogs on my place.” And so there was a group out of Lubbock that was that was eager and willing to volunteer their time and efforts to take prairie dogs from people who didn’t want them and relocate them to places where people did want them. And I think, for the most part, I haven’t really kept up with their efforts lately, but back when that was going on, it looked like good days ahead for prairie dog towns.
Russell Graves [00:17:38] And look, I’ll be the first to say it’s impractical to think you’ll ever rebuild 98 percent of the prairie dog populations, you know, and put them all back where they used to be. I think that’s impractical to think because there is some inherent conflicts between the, the agribusiness infrastructure of our state and of our country and the, and the energy-producing infrastructure of our state and country, all things that we all need every day. I think there are some inherent conflicts, but I feel good to say that I don’t think people are as uptight about prairie dogs as they once were. And I think a lot of that is just the work from folks like Texas Parks and Wildlife and others who are out there kind of fighting the front-line fight to, to just letting people know there is value in prairie dogs.
Russell Graves [00:18:24] There’s, there’s a, there’s an ecological value, clearly. And there’s somewhat of an economic value to, you know, from, from just a wildlife-viewing standpoint. And you know, you can’t measure these things, but there’s always an intrinsic value to having wildlife on your property. Just because I know me when I bought my little farm in Northeast Texas, one of the first things I started doing was converting it away from a hay farm that wasn’t its highest and best use, and really looking at reestablishing it for a wildlife species. Because there’s a, there’s a latent and inherent quality. It improves my quality of life when I could walk outside and see 120 different species of birds on my own property, or, or, or, you know, 30 different species of different mammals, from the littlest mammals to the biggest mammals that live here. And I think people, there’s just a little bit changing of an ethic I think when it comes to prairie dogs. And people, I think a lot more people, appreciate them than they once did.
David Todd [00:19:21] Yeah. Well, it seems like there’s been a real evolution in how people view prairie dogs, and I think you, you touched on this earlier that, that maybe in the early days there was kind of a concern that, you know, livestock, cows, horses might break a leg or that they, they might be in competition with prairie dogs for grazing. Was there anything else that ranchers or maybe farmers, I understand that some farmers, you know, objected to the damage to irrigation canals and so on.
Russell Graves [00:20:04] You know, the farmer thing, the farming things a little trickier than the livestock thing. When I was working on the book and I remember, you know, one of the things that people seemed to, and this is anecdotal, but one of the things that people seemed to report to me the most that they didn’t like about prairie dogs was the fact that cattle or horses could break their legs. But the thing is is when I when I’d ask about it, “Well, does it ever happen to you in your place?” They’d always say, “Oh, no, it’s never happened to me, but I heard someone down the road it happened to.” Well, I could never find that someone it happened to. And I’m not saying that anyone who was blatantly lying to me about it. I just think it’s a big misunderstanding. If you, if you’ve heard the sky is purple your whole life, you’ll always believe the sky is purple, even though we know it’s not. And I think that it was, it was that simple. I think just people had heard the stories all the time and had been conditioned.
Russell Graves [00:20:53] And again, it’s this and I don’t mean this at all as a political statement, but it’s the same, it’s the same federal government who said, “We got to get rid of all the prairie dogs.” A hundred years later was saying, “You know, we’re going, we might limit your ability to make a living on your property and, and by listing this species as threatened.” And so you take, you kind of take, and it’s no wonder people have mixed messages about it, because people just never looked at them from a, you know, I mentioned earlier that, that one of the things I learned to do early on was, was look at a problem in a different light. And I’m not saying I’m the only one who ever looked at this way. But you know, my whole thought was maybe the prairie dogs aren’t as bad as what everyone says they are.
Russell Graves [00:21:39] And turns out they’re not. I think people are accepting, a lot more accepting, of that than they used to be. And what I’m, to clarify on the, on the, on the thought that I had and, like, I don’t know, 1901, I think it was, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s, U.S. Department of Agriculture come out with a year book of agriculture. And that year they estimated the prairie dogs, something like 63, occupied something like 63 million acres of land, in, in the United States. And, and a few years later, in 1905, a guy named Vernon Bailey, who was the chief of the, chief naturalist for the, for the U.S. Biological Survey, said that he’d found a prairie dog town that stretch from the Concho River in San Angelo all the way to Clarendon, Texas. And so that’s, you know, it’s the 250-mile long prairie dog town I was talking about.
Russell Graves [00:22:44] And, but at the time they were quoting that prairie dogs reduced the productivity, in the same, during this early 20th century, the federal government was reporting that prairie dogs reduced the productivity of rangelands from 50 to 75 percent. And, you know, so that kind of simmered. And then, by the 1930s, the federal government started sponsoring ranchers to poison prairie dog towns and try to just eliminate them from the plains. And that’s, it’s kind of during the 1930s. And you know, that happens to coincide with the greatest man-made ecological disaster our country’s ever seen. And that’s the Dust Bowl because of improper farming practices.
Russell Graves [00:23:28] So you’ve got this double whammy of poor farming practices and you know, that were, that were government-sponsored and government-supported. And then you’ve got these, this ecological disaster from a wildlife standpoint that we’re going to go put out poison and poison out these prairie dog towns in this ecosystem. I mean, that’s, it’s during, during probably, my dates may be off a little bit, but probably from the ’30s until the ’60s, when the prairie dog, the numbers really, really collapsed in the country.
Russell Graves [00:24:02] And again, it’s, it’s, it’s a little bit, if you look at the story and try to keep politics out of it, it’s a little bit, a little bit alarming, and a little bit, a little bit eye-opening and whatever adjective you want to use, to realize that the same government who, who promoted getting rid of these species was the same government who also said, “Nope, you’re going to have to preclude the economic activities on your own land to protect this one species that oh yeah, by the way, we told everybody to kill 70 years before.”
David Todd [00:24:36] That’s that’s a really interesting point. I mean, it’s, it’s I’m sure some of the folks were feeling whipsawed. And in one case, said, you know, that these prairie dogs were bad and the next, you know, generation they’re told that, “No, they’re good!
Russell Graves [00:24:52] Yeah.
David Todd [00:24:53] It must have been confusing.
Russell Graves [00:24:56] Like I was saying earlier, that I think if, if, if you’re always told the sky is purple from the day you’re born, the sky is always going to be purple to you. You don’t know any better, because you haven’t really been exposed to a different way of thinking. And I say that not trying to be demeaning to any, any, any farmer, rancher and I know a lot of those guys and I think the world of them and they’re some of the smartest and most resilient and toughest people I know.
Russell Graves [00:25:21] But at the same time, if you’re, you know, most people don’t have the time to go and investigate every little thing that you hear throughout life, you just kind of think, “Well, it’s what I heard, so it must be true.” And I think that, you know, because they were being told by government officials from the ’30s told, you know, grandpa or dad one thing, and then they inherited the farm and ranch and they just kind of kept the same attitudes. And it’s, it’s no wonder why all those years later, people are confused by it. And I think that’s true with the prairie dogs. And, you know, unfortunately, a lot of other things as well.
David Todd [00:25:59] That seems like a really good point, I mean, as you say, a lot of times you just don’t have the time to investigate on your own and you have to take people’s advice or their version of the facts as, as the proof.
Russell Graves [00:26:16] I’ll say this and I will stand on this. I think from a contemporary standpoint, I think, I’m going to give grace to all sides involved when it comes to species like prairie dogs or anything else. I think for the most part, people have the, they have self-centered intentions, but I always think the best intentions. I think it’s rare that people don’t have the best intentions, especially when it comes to a lot of rural people who are just trying to get by. You know what I mean? They’re just trying to, they’ve got a farm or ranch they’re trying to keep together. They’re just, they’re doing what they, what they can to get by.
Russell Graves [00:26:51] And, you know, it sometimes it relies on people like me and people like you and others who are in, you know, I’m not a professional conservationist, I’m an armchair conservationist, but to just tell a different story and, and not be preachy about it, not be browbeating about it, but just say, “Hey, have you thought about it this way?”. Because, I think, if, if I was to press a lot of people that have prairie dogs on their property, I think a lot of them kind of like them, which goes back to that Steve Bird I mentioned earlier. He never did anything about the prairie dogs on his land because he kind of liked them out there. And I think a lot of people are that way.
David Todd [00:27:29] Mm-Hmm. And from what little I know, it sounds like some of the prairie dog’s decline is, is not really directly related to people and the extermination campaign, but, but this onslaught of plague. Can you tell us a little bit about the bubonic plague and its effect on, on prairie dogs?
Russell Graves [00:27:55] Yeah, it is pretty devastating to prairie dog towns. They’re, you know, it’s the same bubonic plague, and I think that’s probably what gives them a bad rap, but it’s the same bubonic plague that affects people and it’s spread by fleas. And I think, on the subject of bubonic plague, and I think that’s probably another thing that sort of gives prairie dogs a bad rap is, you know, we hear all the horror stories about the plague that happened in the, in the, you know, the Middle Ages, in Europe, and how many people it killed. And you know, I guess it’s, it’s in a lot of ways parallels the pandemic, like we’re, we’re all living with now. And so it’s, I think people fear prairie dog towns for that. But, but the plague, and I’m no, and this is a little bit out of my, you know, when you start doing viral or bacterial diseases and their modes and mechanisms by which they work, it’s a little bit out of my expertise, but I just know that, that when a plague is introduced into a prairie dog town, it can be pretty devastating. In fact, it can wipe out an entire, especially small, towns.
Russell Graves [00:29:13] So when towns were bigger, you know, and that’s where the real danger for prairie dogs now, when towns were bigger, you know, like this big 250-mile long by 100-mile wide prairie dog town. If it was to affect part of the prairie dog town, it wouldn’t necessarily affect the whole town, it would be pockets of it that would get it, and the disease would manifest itself. And this is where I don’t know why, but you know, it would kill all the ones it was going to kill, then kind of go away for a while, and then it may pop up somewhere else and do something else. But now that you have these segmented populations of prairie dog towns, once it gets introduced into a town, it can be devastating towards just, just that one particular town that’s in.
Russell Graves [00:29:53] I suspect that prairie dog town that we studied as a, in, that I studied with the high school kids when I was still teaching. It, a few years later, all, all the dogs disappeared on it. I suspect it was probably a plague that wiped them out.
Russell Graves [00:30:06] But had that been a bigger town in a more interconnected ecosystem, it might have affected that 10 acres. But you know that 10 acres would soon be re-colonized by other towns, other prairie dogs coming from the periphery. As, you know, prairie dogs live in a sort of society where, as the young males get older, they kind of get ran off by the older males, and they’ve got to go find a new town somewhere else. And it was funny when we were, when we were studying these prairie dog towns, just about every year we’d find a prairie dog town that was, that was across the draw, you know, half a mile away, where you’d go over there and you’d find two or three burrows where they’re trying to establish a new town there, they’re just trying to start a new town somewhere else.
Russell Graves [00:30:48] And, you know, so if a plague was to wipe out entire town, if that town was bigger than 10 acres, those, those burrows would get reused by subsequent populations of prairie dogs. The local dynamics of their population dynamics in the place.
David Todd [00:31:07] Huh, interesting. So the existing prairie dog town might get reoccupied. Another group might come in and transplant themselves there?
Russell Graves [00:31:19] As best I can tell, that’s, that’s what would happen there. Again…
David Todd [00:31:23] I see.
Russell Graves [00:31:24] Because every, every year just the dynamics, just because of, you know, limited resources in a particular given area. And you know, I can’t, I may be wrong on this, but I can’t think, I mean, I think essentially, every animal, every organism on the planet is born to do one thing and that’s reproduce. And so as these towns naturally try to grow in size and in turn become more numbers, they’re just, you know, the, the adult males push the young males out. Same thing happens in bison populations. Same thing happened in a lot of different animal populations that live kind of, not cooperatively, but they, they live commingly, they commingle with each other and live in sort of a loose social society, that, you know, the young males get kicked out to go kind of stake their claim somewhere else. And that’s what happens amongst prairie dogs as well.
David Todd [00:32:23] Yeah. You know, we’ve been talking about the decline and how they, these prairie dogs have been vulnerable to both the extermination campaign and then also the plague. But I think it might help put this whole decline in, in context, if you could talk about some of those early estimates of the range and the population that people like Vernon Bailey and others created. I think J. Frank Dobie had some, some estimates, too. And, and I’ve heard that other people, more recently, in the last 10, 20 years, have said, “You know, those estimates, they may have been high and the decline may not have been as dramatic as we feared.” Where do you come down on that debate?
Russell Graves [00:33:23] You know, I think, I think they’re probably right. You know? I look at it like this. With, with the advanced resources I have, if I was given the task to go out and measure the size of every pond in this, in the county where I live now, I’m probably going to get it wrong. And that’s with all the advanced technologies that we have at our fingertips now. So if you look back from a historic standpoint, I’m sure there’s a lot of guesstimation going on, people just kind of put their finger to the wind.
Russell Graves [00:34:00] And, you know, I can’t, I can’t imagine, just knowing the nature of people, and knowing how things work and just, you know, being at least somewhat a passing student of history, there was probably some, there’s no doubt there was, and I can’t prove this, it’s just my hunch, but there’s probably no doubt when they were doing those early estimations is, you know, there’s probably a financial interest behind them saying this is the official record. And you know, whether that was money passed under the table, or whether or what it was or, you know, we’re, people are people, and we have our own biases and sometimes people take those biases too far. And so it wouldn’t surprise me if every one of those estimates are wrong and we’re just dealing with flawed data.
Russell Graves [00:34:46] You know, it’s on a different species that’s kind of a western species that, that I did a story on a magazine with, it’s not the black-tailed prairie dog, but the, the dune sagebrush lizard. I did a, I did some pictures and a story in a magazine about that, and how they threatened to, if those animals, if those lizards, were listed as a threatened species, how they might curtail oil production in one of the richest, if not the richest oil production area in the entire world. And that was kind of the Wolfcamp shale in the Permian Basin in East New Mexico.
INTERVIEWEE: Russell Graves
INTERVIEWER: David Todd
DATE: February 1, 2022
LOCATION: Dodd City, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Trint, David Todd
SOURCE MEDIA: Ringr, MP3 audio file
Russell Graves [00:00:01] Were earlier estimates of the, of the, of the species, correct? I mean, once they kind of figured out how many there were, were those models they used to estimate them even right? And so if they’re right about an obscure species like the dune sagebrush lizard, if they were incorrect about an obscure species like the dune sagebrush lizard, it wouldn’t surprise me to know that they were incorrect about the black-tailed prairie dog as well.
Russell Graves [00:00:27] And, you know, here’s the thing: when you, when you look at the, if you’re being fair about it, when you look at the report of the 250-mile wide by 100-mile long prairie dog town. That was undoubtedly not one single town in a collection of towns, and who knows? Because, as I recall, it doesn’t say anything, in the account I read, about, you know, it may be my 21st century brain will allow me to think this way, but I can’t imagine a prairie dog town that big. It’s undoubtedly a collection of towns that that just happened to be the range of where they stretch to. And it wasn’t just a continuous town from where San Angelo sits now all the way to where Clarendon, Texas is now. It just doesn’t seem practical to me.
David Todd [00:01:17] I see. So it could be that that was their range, but it wasn’t as dense – that there were, there were gaps and …
Russell Graves [00:01:24] Yeah.
David Todd [00:01:24] Openings within and among the, the colonies in those prairie dog towns. Interesting.
Russell Graves [00:01:31] And too, I think, from, from just from a historical and human perspective as well, and look, I don’t want to paint those guys who did the historical work as bad guys, I’m not. I mean, you know, if, throughout history, I think there’s plenty of, plenty of people who just do the best they can to describe something. I mean, I think, you know, I’ve had this conversation with people before. When you look at the Holy Bible and I believe, you know, full disclosure, I’m a Christian and I believe in the Bible. But I think some of the things in the Bible, especially the way the Earth was created, was, you know, it said it was created in seven days. I think there’s room for the scientific argument that it took longer than seven days to create. But I think it fits in well with the, with the biblical narrative, too, that was created in seven days. I just don’t think that the people, because the Bible’s, was a holy document that was inspired by a holy Being, but it was still written by people, and I don’t think that those people may have had the linguistic or the vocabulary capacity to come up with a word to describe the eons other than, “Well, OK, it took a day.”
Russell Graves [00:02:48] I think you take that same perspective, and, you know, when people used to describe the Earth and tried to make sense of the Earth. Well, for the longest, they thought it was flat, and that’s the only way they could think to describe it. And then when it, you know, and you take that same sort of logic to a species like the prairie dog and trying to come up with their estimate, I think the people there probably undoubtedly just used the, the best knowledge they had in their mind at the time to describe whatever it is they were trying to describe, whether it’s the size of a prairie dog town or something other, else in nature they were finding, to describe what it looked like. And probably a generous sense of hyperbole thrown in there as well, because you look at accounts of buffalo and you’ll, you’ll see people, right, that are still quoted today that, you know, the buffalo herd was so big that you could walk 30 miles across them on their back, on their backs without ever touching the ground. Well I don’t quite believe that. But that’s just the only way they knew to describe it.
Russell Graves [00:03:51] And I think today you can argue the same thing. As enlightened as we think we are, there’s most of the things that we don’t know, particularly in the natural world. There’s a ton of things we don’t know. And I think the way that I used to describe things today, and the million words I’ve had published in my lifetime, I think all the things that I’ve written a hundred years now, can be looked back on, and think you know, what was he thinking? We know so much more now than we did then. And so I think that’s true through out every phase in human history.
David Todd [00:04:22] Yeah, that that seems like a very honest and humble way to look at it. You know, sometimes we just don’t have the knowledge or the imagination to quite understand what’s real.
David Todd [00:04:37] You know, I’d like to to go back to some something about these prairie dogs because you, I think you’ve, you’ve looked at them and thought about them so much more than most. And one thing I was curious about is that it sounds like these prairie dogs have benefits for their part of the world that maybe weren’t really expecting. I think I read in your book about, you know, issues of infiltration and water retention and nutrient levels and controlling hardwoods like mesquites. And are there any true examples of those kind of benefits from prairie dogs that people might not anticipate?
Russell Graves [00:05:33] You know, I really think as much as anything is just the, well, actually, two things. You know, you drive, you’re going 75 miles an hour down the highway, and you look out at a prairie dog and it looks barren. I think it surprises a lot of people once you just, you go somewhere, not a place like McKenzie Park in Lubbock, that’s sort of an artificial sort of habitat where they have prairie dogs there. But if you go somewhere like the Wichita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma, where they have just, just a wild prairie dog town, and those prairie dogs are habituated to people in the sense that you can sit there and observe them for a long time. I think it really surprises people to see how much, how much life is going on in and around those prairie dog towns. I think that’s, that’s one thing that will surprise people.
Russell Graves [00:06:23] And I think too, just the fact that, you know, when you, or when we looked at, it surprised me when we looked at the forage quality of the, of, of the grass in the prairie dog town, because, you know, I’ll take one species in particular like buffalo grass, for example, which is a common forage grass that’s short grass that grows all over all of the Texas Rolling Plains and the High Plains. When you take a grass like that, that’s palatable to livestock and, you know, livestock, meaning not only cattle, but at one time, bison, and so what happens when you go outside and you cut your grass every day. Or what happens when you go outside and you cut your grass? Grass is going to grow back, right? And because of that, it is always in a state of regeneration. It’s always growing. Well, it’s putting all the nutrients it gets from the soil in, you know, it’s, it’s doing what grass does, and that’s turning sunlight into energy and then that energy is being transferred to the animal.
Russell Graves [00:07:24] I think once people understand that cycle and how prairie dogs influence that cycle of just grass growing and then regenerating in that constant state of regeneration, which makes it a higher quality forage for, for the animals that would graze on it, I think, I think that part surprises people too to learn. But it’s just, it’s, it’s, I’m not a botanist, but as I understand botany and understand how photosynthesis works and, and all those natural mechanisms of how, how the, the grand mechanism of how plants take water and are able to extract nutrients from the soil and transfer those nutrients up into the leaves and then living, you know, mammals can eat that grass and then turn that grass into energy and flesh for their bodies. And how that whole, just the miracle of how the sun and the plants and the soil and the microbes in the soil and the bugs in the soil, which, by the way, because of prairie dogs constantly disturbing the soil, it becomes more conducive for, for microorganisms and the, and the microorganism community within the, within the soil, as well as just, just the bigger stuff you can see like bugs and how it influences the whole ecosystem. And again makes that, makes that big food cycle work – changing energy into, or sunlight into plant energy, into animal energy, and then then it brings all the predators in and is able to, to transfer the energy to another, another type of life.
Russell Graves [00:09:03] And it’s just a, it’s a miraculous cycle that, you know, I think people, when they take time to really understand how that works and how prairie dogs are a part of that cycle, I think once they understand that, it just kind of paints them all in a brand new light.
David Todd [00:09:19] Yeah. Well, and you know, I think you, you’ve really mastered the art of shining a light on these animals. And I think for a lot of people’s day-to-day experience, they’re driving, as you said, 75 miles an hour down the freeway, and they may not appreciate how the dynamic on these prairie towns, prairie dog towns are. And so I was curious how, you know, after doing your research with your students, you managed to persuade folks at Texas Tech Press to accept your submission of a manuscript and, and publish this book, “Prairie Dog: Sentinel of the Prairie”. I mean, how, how did you get them to see things, with the value that you had observed?
Russell Graves [00:10:16] Well, it wasn’t easy. I’ll tell you that one thing that. You know, really, it’s kind of one of those stories of, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” And in this case, I was looking at all my pictures, and I realized one day that I may have, I’m not going to say the best, but I’ve got a pretty good collection of prairie dog images. And this is back in the day when we were shooting all these pictures on slides. It wasn’t, you know, digital photography was in its infancy. And it’s not like I had a ton of pictures of prairie dogs, I mean, they were all on slides. But I just, inherently, were looking at them, I thought I saw value in that and saw value in telling the story.
Russell Graves [00:10:56] And about that time is when we started doing the research on prairie dogs with the school and, and really, I was starting to what I felt like, at least from my paradigm, I was understanding the bigger story and the bigger ecological story behind the prairie dog. And so there’s a book that came out about the same time by Wyman Meinzer, or a little bit earlier than that, a couple of books actually, by Wyman Meinzer. One is about the roadrunner and the other one is about the coyote, and Texas Tech University published it.
Russell Graves [00:11:26] And so I inquired of them about, hey, are you all looking to do any more books on kind of western Texas species that are, you know, even though roadrunners and coyotes are found all over the state, you know, they’re kind of, at least in popular imagination, they’re a kind of a Western species. I think a lot of that is because of the, the, the old Looney Tunes cartoon with the coyote and the roadrunner. And so you think of them being in open vast spaces, which was the Rolling Plains and the, and the High Plains of Texas.
Russell Graves [00:11:58] And so I asked them that and they said, “Yeah, what do you got in mind?” And this was, this was, this wasn’t over a phone call, and I’m distilling the conversation down. But this is, you know, email correspondences because that time email had came of age. And so, you know, they had a standard where you, you would propose a, a book idea. And I, and I followed their format and filled out, you know, did a proposal to do this book. And they said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And so I got a contract to write the book and wrote the book and spent about the next year doing more pictures of the prairie dog. And the rubber meets the road when it came to the review process. And that’s when, that’s when it, I was forced to be a little tougher. Because at that point, what I was trying to do was, you know, I’m 30 years old writing this book and trying to act like I’m an expert on prairie dogs. And then I found out pretty quick when they sent out the review process. And this is one of the things that we really had to come to grips on.
Russell Graves [00:13:01] And this is one of the things professionally that I really had to stand my ground a little bit because they sent it out to a reviewer who was a (I won’t name his name, because I don’t want anyone to think I’m picking on the guy, have a lot of respect for him), but they sent out this review to a reviewer who looked at my manuscript, my 20,000-word manuscript like it was a doctoral thesis. And I got that manuscript back. I think I’ve still got it in my files somewhere. There was so much red on that thing and just, and I finally had to come back to them and say, “You know, I never pretended to be a scientist. You all knew that going in. I was just writing kind of a general, easy-to-read account, kind of an armchair naturalist version of the prairie dog. I mean, everything in there is right. It may not be cited and annotated like I’m trying to defend a doctoral thesis, but there’s, there’s, there’s no wrong information in there, at the time.” There may be now, you may can go back through because 20 years has passed. You may go back through and find some inconsistencies. But at the time I just told them, “I’ll stand on what it says. You know, maybe I didn’t write it like a, like a, like a scientific journal or a scientific article in Nature journal would be, where, you know, I put, I put citations behind every sentence”, I said. But I was writing it like an extended magazine story because this book is not going to be for other scientists. It’s going to be for the people who have a ranch out on the plains. Or it’s going to be for people who love Texas nature, Texas wildlife and, and that’s what it’s aimed for. And fortunately, they agreed.
Russell Graves [00:14:39] And so from there, it went to publishing, it went to the Press, and I won’t lie to you. I can remember it like it was yesterday, because when they asked me where to ship my books to, when Texas Tech University Press asked where to ship my books to, I wasn’t patient enough for them to ship to my house. I just said, “Ship them to the school.” And then the UPS guy brought them by to my classroom one day, and in front of my, in front of my class, I got this shipment of 20 books in and opened it up, and it was literally the best Christmas present ever I had.
Russell Graves [00:15:09] Because it’s one thing to work on it. It’s another thing to look at a book that’s as beautiful as that thing was, and in my opinion, still is, because I’m looking at a copy on my desk right here. It was just pretty cool to see it and see it all done and in print, and in such a sleek package, and with my name on it, that was, that really, in my mind, sort of brought a lot of things for me, full circle. And I did it at 30 years of age.
Russell Graves [00:15:37] And, you know, I’ve had other projects since then than I’ve done, but I go back to this one. I tell people all the time, “Prairie dogs are the best dog I ever had.” They did so much for me professionally, you know, financially, I’m not going to say that I did it for free. You know, I did, I did make money off of it because it was a pretty good seller. It was kind of a slow burn, but it was a pretty good seller for the Press. And, and it’s, you know, it’s been a, been a big part of my life, and a big part of my identity and in who, who I am for, you know, the ensuing 20 years since the book came out.
David Todd [00:16:17] You know, I’d be curious to know what people’s reaction has been to this book, I mean, starting with the students in your class when that shipment of books arrived. And then I guess you you’ve also, you know, over the years, given presentations, as you said to the Lions and the Rotary Clubs and to, I’m sure many, many others. How do people react?
Russell Graves [00:16:46] You know, I can. They act in two ways. I can only know what I know, but you know, living in a small town in that rural community? A lot of, I could have wrote in that book that, prairie dogs are the only thing that will save mankind long-term, I wrote something as ludicrous as that. And then all these people that know me would have still been proud of me. I mean, so the fact that I did a book, and a small-town boy makes good there. There is that behind it.
Russell Graves [00:17:15] But you know, the other part, it’s, it’s hard to know for sure, because most of the people end up buying your book, you just don’t know them and you never communicate with them. But I was, there’s still, a few copies available to you that you can buy through Amazon, and I was looking on Amazon the other day. Just, and I don’t mean this as a vanity play. I was just trying to order one of my books to send to somebody. I didn’t want to send an old copy that I have. And, and when I was looking online, you look and it doesn’t have a lot of reviews, but they’re are all five-star reviews. So I look at that and think, well, someone, someone liked it. You know, at least eight people liked it.
Russell Graves [00:17:48] And you know, and as Texas culture goes, and I hope especially rural culture goes, I hope we sort of keep this in mind. But I was always raised to say, if you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all. And if there’s been much negative backlash about it, I haven’t heard about it because everyone’s always been so nice about it to me. And, you know, I’ve actually written six books, had six books published, and it’s not anything I lead with when I’m in conversations, but it’s, I’ll be honest, it’s always kind of cool when it comes up, when people find out that I’ve done books and especially books like prairie dogs, because so much of what I do, I still spend in the outdoors, you know, whether it’s, it came up, well, the reason I was buying the book for someone because we were out in the field and I started telling about prairie dogs. And how in the world do you know so much about prairie dogs. I said, “Well, it just so happens. I wrote, at least at the time, THE book about prairie dogs.” And you know, it kind of makes a, it kind of leads into, you know, deeper conversations from there.
Russell Graves [00:18:53] So again, you know, it’s, it’s not John Grisham or Stephen King level where I could I could retire off the number sold, you know? I’m assuming Texas Tech Press was happy with its performance, and, you know, I got checks for a lot of years from those books, it’s out of print now, but I got checks for a lot of years from the sales off that book, and it’s, I’m happy about that. And you know, the return rate ultimately, I think, was pretty low for the Press.
Russell Graves [00:19:21] And so, yeah, you mean you take it for what it is. Again, it’s not anything that’s meant to be a, anything that’s meant to be a scientific deep dive into the prairie dog. It’s a 20,000-word magazine article that kind of talks about the good, the bad and the ugly and kind of where we got to where we were in the early 2000s when the book was published. And kind of what brought us to that point in time, and a lot of cool pictures, to kind of accompany that because,..
David Todd [00:19:51] Well, you know, I’m glad you put it out there.
Russell Graves [00:19:59] I’m sorry. Are you still there? Hello.
David Todd [00:20:08] Pointed at you. So just as a hypothetical.
Russell Graves [00:20:15] I lost you for a minute.
David Todd [00:20:17] I’m sorry. I think we’re still, still on.
Russell Graves [00:20:20] OK? The last thing I heard you say, “I’m glad you pointed out”, and then it went blank.
David Todd [00:20:26] Well, I’ll maybe go back and fill in. I’m glad that you took the risk to, to write and, and publish this, and I know that’s always a risky thing.
INTERVIEWEE: Russell Graves
INTERVIEWER: David Todd
DATE: February 5, 2022
LOCATION: Missoula, Montana
SOURCE MEDIA: MP3 audio file
TRANSCRIPTION: Trint, David Todd
David Todd [00:00:03] OK. Good evening, I’m David Todd, and I have the pleasure of being and talking with Russell Graves. And with his permission, we plan on recording this interview for research and educational work on behalf of the Conservation History Association of Texas, and for a book and a website for Texas A&M University Press and for an archive at Briscoe Center for American History over at the University of Texas at Austin, and he would have all rights to use the recording as he sees fit. And I just wanted to make sure that’s OK with him.
Russell Graves [00:00:43] That’s OK.
David Todd [00:00:45] All right. Well, it is February 5th, 2022, about six o’clock – a little later, 6:10 Central Time. My name is David Todd. I’m representing the Conservation History Association of Texas and I am in Austin and we are conducting a remote interview with Russell Graves. And he is based in Childress, actually the Dodd City, Texas, area and today happens to be in Montana. So we wanted to thank him for taking time out of his travels to visit with us.
Russell Graves [00:01:24] Thank you.
David Todd [00:01:26] All right. Well, Mr. Graves has worked as a teacher and author, a photographer, a photography guide and teacher. And, but some 20 years ago, 2001, Texas Tech Press published his book “The Prairie Dog: Sentinel of the Plains”, featuring both Mr. Graves’ camerawork and his writing. And it was a great volume that sort of discusses the prairie dog. And so we wanted to pick up on an earlier conversation we had about his knowledge about the prairie dog that we had started speaking with him about on February 1st. And once again, we’re going to resume and talk about his life and career and especially focus on his work with the prairie dog.
David Todd [00:02:18] So we just have two questions for him.
David Todd [00:02:21] And the first is: this book that I referred to before, “The Prairie Dog: Sentinel of the Plains”, came out some 20 years ago, and there have been a lot of technical changes since then. And of course, Mr. Graves has probably evolved since then, too. So I was curious if you might be able to tell us, if you had the chance to do a sequel or to do the book over, how might you do it this time?
Russell Graves [00:02:52] I think my same basic approach would be the same because really the core, I think the core theme of the book, when I wrote it, was more sort of, you know, was based out of my curiosity, I didn’t have any preconceived notions that prairie dogs were good or bad. They’re just a neat species of wildlife that I found close to my house. And so, thinking back, I think I’d still approach it from the same, same sort of open mindedness and same sense of wonder that I did then.
Russell Graves [00:03:26] You know, of course, some things have changed as far as, you know, at the time I wrote it, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioning, it was being petitioned to list the prairie dog as a threatened species, so I’d kind of follow up and see how all the states have done on their charge to, to manage the species themselves, that precluded the listing of the species as threatened. I know I want to follow up on that and kind of see what that’s, how things have been done.
Russell Graves [00:03:55] Also, I kind of want to do a review of the scientific literature and see, you know, if any advances have been made in just the understanding of prairie dogs.
Russell Graves [00:04:03] I think the one thing that would excite me the most, though, is to really go back with today’s technology and in re-photograph a lot of that book. You know, a lot of the photographs I’m proud of and I am, you know, because I was 20 years younger then, and I’m proud of the way they came out in the book. And some of them, I don’t know that I could do any better.
Russell Graves [00:04:24] But you’ve got to remember all that was shot on film too. It was, it was in the early days of digital photography, but the median, the medium hadn’t really, hadn’t really came of age yet. And so one of the things I’d like to do is, if I was to do volume two or redo it all over again, is to go back and, and shoot a bunch of the same, or similar type, scenes with the newer cameras, and, and just to try different technologies to capture the, the same pictures in sort of a different way.
Russell Graves [00:04:57] And what I mean by that is using some of the drone technologies to do flyovers or low-level flyovers of the prairie dog town or, or, you know, the small action cameras like GoPros and in camera traps and be able to just set out a camera and leave it on a town for weeks at a time and be able to take high-quality digital photographs that are lit with studio-quality strobes to be able to figure out what’s in the town when you’re not there. Because obviously, when you’re in the town, the prairie dogs know you’re there and everything else around knows you’re there, so I’d be curious to see if I could, again, set some, set some camera traps out, use GoPros, use the fiber optic technology, the high-def fiber optic fiber optic technology that you can buy off the shelf at like any Home Depot or Lowe’s store used for inspecting pipes. But you know, it’d be neat to put one of those down and be able to shoot pictures or video of a prairie dog inside the burrow.
Russell Graves [00:05:55] I think ultimately what I would do since I’ve learned so much more since then, and since so much of the digital technology has been democratized, probably what I would do is take a good chunk of the, of the manuscript and make that into a documentary script and just do a, do a film about the prairie dogs and how fascinating the creature, how fascinating of a creature that they are and interview people who are on both sides of the issue. I think that would be fascinating.
Russell Graves [00:06:24] Not sure who the ultimate audience would be. If the audience is just a YouTube video that’s probably suffices. I don’t necessarily have, have images of grandeur in my head concerning that it is going to be on BBC America or anything like that, but it’d be, still be neat to go back and film, film all of that stuff, both on video and redo a lot of the still photographs that I did before.
David Todd [00:06:48] That’s great. You know, it’s interesting how, you know, this is a creature that’s been out on the plains for hundreds of thousands of years, and yet the ability to tell its story has evolved so much, you know, with these new devices, and, and then the whole political realm that surrounds it, and the scientific understanding, has evolved a lot. So maybe volume two is, is merited.
David Todd [00:07:16] So one last question, if you don’t mind. I, you know, we tend to sort of have these scripted questions and I don’t know if they give you enough latitude to really talk about what you would like to talk about. And so I would hope that if there’s anything you’d like to add that we skipped over or just didn’t do justice to before, I would love to hear, you know, if there’s something you’d like to add.
Russell Graves [00:07:44] Well, it seems like my life has been cyclical in a way that things, like you hear a lot of people say tend to come full circle a lot for me. You know, the prairie dog was one of those species that really, as a young man, I mean, I was like 27 or 28 when I started work on that book. As a young man, it really kind of was a springboard for my confidence to really understand the depths of, and I hate to say my talents because I don’t want to sound like I’m someone special, but whatever talent I was given, that the prairie dog and being able to do that book helped me springboard into a larger career and a broader career.
Russell Graves [00:08:29] You know, at the time I was teaching high school and I love teaching, and I left that profession in 2009 and continued, you know, with, with my professional writing and photography career, and you know, I’ve been making my living doing that for, I guess, the past 20 years. I’ve started, I started probably making as much or more money taking pictures and writing words in 1999 than I did when I got paid as a teacher. And so but I love teaching and I love doing the, the, you know, telling stories of things that are wild. And so I did both for a long time. And then when I left the profession in 2009, it felt like there’s was a little bit of a void because a lot of teaching. I love teaching high school. I love teaching at Childress High School. It’s the only, only school I ever taught at, and I did it there for sixteen years.
Russell Graves [00:09:17] But my point about things coming full circle: a few years ago, I met a guy that we quickly became friends, and he owns a company called Backcountry Journeys, and he had asked me to come be a, do some photography, some photography educational events with him. And so, you know, started going out and guiding people on photographic adventures in the wild, and it really rekindled my love of teaching.
Russell Graves [00:09:41] And so from a teaching standpoint, that really brought me full circle. The photography has been a part of my life since I’ve been a teenager into the adult. But when I left teaching, like I said, it left sort of a hole in what I was doing and what I felt like my purpose was, and I never really saw myself as being a guide or leading workshops or anything like that. But the first one I did, I just realized how much I love doing it, how much I love sharing, not only how to take pictures and the things I’ve learned from a photography standpoint with other people, but just sharing nature with other people and educating them about the natural world and being an advocate about different species and why they’re important and just letting people understand all the nuances of wildlife photography.
Russell Graves [00:10:28] It’s not just about taking a picture, pushing a button on a camera. There’s also a bigger story to be told and helping them understand that story because a lot of people, well-meaning as they may be, they’re, they are limited in their exposure to it, because, I take this really seriously: a lot of times when people go on trips with me, I understand that may be the only time, that’s their vacation for the year, they saved up money to do this trip.
Russell Graves [00:10:53] And you know, they’re going like, right now, I’m doing a trip this week in wintertime in Yellowstone. You know, or it may be one of my Yellowstone trips, or it may be one of my trips to the Smoky Mountains. Or maybe it’s one of my bear trips in Alaska I too. But I, I don’t negate the fact that people have spent good money to be there and they’ve worked hard and they may be taking the only week they get off at vacation a year to go somewhere with me.
Russell Graves [00:11:22] And so I just feel like it’s important for me to teach them as much as I can about photography and about the natural world. And at this point in my life, I’m 52 years old right now and I feel about as fulfilled as I’ve ever felt in my professional life.
David Todd [00:11:42] That’s a good place to arrive: you know, lots of twists and turns in anybody’s life, and it must be really satisfying to be at that stage where, yeah, this has been a good trip.
David Todd [00:11:54] And I must say I wanted to thank you for spending some time to discuss it with us. And you know, much as you taught kids in high school or the adults on your photography tours, you taught us a lot. So thank you for that.
Russell Graves [00:12:10] Yes, sir. Thank you.
David Todd [00:12:12] All right. Well, so good to spend time with you again. I hope our paths cross. In the meantime, good luck out there in the snow. Hope you see some, some big, shaggy, icy animals. Keep an eye out for mastodons. Who knows? Yetis? Who knows what you’ll see?
Russell Graves [00:12:33] You never know. That’s what I tell them.
David Todd [00:12:35] You never know.
Russell Graves [00:12:35] We might see a yeti while we’re up here. So keep your eyes open, you always got to watch. You know what you’ll see if you’re staying at home: you won’t see anything. So you got to swing for the bleachers if you want to hit a home run.
David Todd [00:12:47] There you go. Well, glad you’re out there. Enjoy it. Good to talk to you.
Russell Graves [00:12:52] Yes, sir.
David Todd [00:12:52] Talk to you later.