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Prairie dog barrier could mend fences in ferret reintroduction area

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Prairie dog barrier could mend fences in ferret reintroduction area

Published on -9/18/2009, 3:19 PM

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RUSSELL SPRINGS -- The accomodations might be spartan, to say the least, but for Don Redecker it's an outdoor adventure of unparalleled proportion -- right down to the outdoor shower at a nearby windmill.

And he's being paid for the adventure.

Redecker's time south of Russell Springs is a simple life: sleeping under the stars when the weather's fine, only moving inside -- under the protection offered by an overhanging porch -- when the rain is falling. He's without a phone, but pens letters by the hundreds to his son, wife and his siblings, all of whom are in the eastern part of Kansas. And they are just as eager to write back.

At 61 years old, Redecker is undertaking something of a monumental task for Audubon of Kansas, which hired him to install 10 miles of chicken wire fence on the Haverfield-Barnhardt-Blank ranch complex where the highly endangered black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced and are reproducing.

The idea behind the fence is to add yet another barrier to the movement of black-tailed prairie dogs, upon which the ferrets depend for survival, offering food and shelter. While neighboring landowners have objected to the reintroduction of the ferrets, it's the prairie dogs that are at the heart of the controversy.

In a sense Redecker's task epitomizes Robert Frost's epic poem, "Mending Wall" in which the immortal words, "Good fences make good neighbors" are written.

In this case, perhaps the fences come in the form of 4-feet-tall chicken wire formed into a u-shape to prevent prairie dogs from going over, under and through to get to the other side. Two strands of electric wire, it's hoped, will provide an extra incentive to the animals to stay on the land where they are welcome, rather than straying off elsewhere where they are not so welcome.

There are, to be sure, skeptics. Ferret and prairie dog opponents have suggested that the task is futile. Even supporters of the reintroduction program are uncertain how effective the fence will be.

Redecker is even a bit concerned, fearful that tumbleweeds will blow into the fence, and snow could pile up.

No matter. Redeker is undaunted, slogging away at the task at hand, driving in T-posts and then specially-formed rebar. The chicken wire is attached to the posts and rebar by means of hog-rings -- by the hundreds if not thousands.

"I'm supposed to go in line with Larry's fence" Redecker said of following the fence line of rancher Larry Haverfield.

The fence is flush with posts, 16 of them every 150 feet.

"I've got to put 5,300 of these in," Redecker said as he pounded in rebar with a 6-pound hammer. "If I were to lose this, it would bring me to a standstill."

The struggle, he said, is to keep the chicken wire tight.

While he talks of a difficult task, he delights in how he is coping with the surroundings.

"I'm going totally cold" he said. "I'm starting no fires."

Redeker has a freezer hooked up to an outlet, allowing him to keep food. He brings water with him to the field. Audubon of Kansas Executive Director Ron Klataske loaned him a car.

"He thought I should run back and forth to see my family" he said.

Redecker isn't in the dark on the controversy surrounding the reintroduction of ferrets.

"I've been reading about this, so I'm very sympathetic" he said.

Redecker has been amazed at the volume of wildlife that he's seen -- the swift foxes and burrowing owls, not to mention the prairie dogs.

He's sticking close to nature while he's out there.

"I'm sleeping in the back of my pickup" he said. "If it rains, I go to Russell Springs and sleep on a porch of an abandoned house."

While he follows his own work schedule, he admits that it's daybreak to dark.

"I'm taking showers right there at that tank" he said, pointing to a windmill. "It's amazing how warm that water is."

Redecker had plans of fixing up an old rock school house on Haverfield's land, and did stay in there the first couple of nights he was working on the fence.

He knew there were rodents, but wasn't overly concerned.

"Then I saw a Norway rat," he said. "And, then I saw a second one. So I said, 'I'm getting out of here.' "

But the task is slow.

"I think I'm lucky if I get a quarter mile in" he said. "I'm not paying much attention. Posts are going fast. Rings are going fast."

Redecker said he doesn't need much, and uses a refrigerator box as bedding in the back of his truck.

"I don't need anything soft," he said.

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