Prairie dogs test Coloradans' patience, and ability to compromise

Colorado, like many Mountain States, is struggling with a surge in prairie dogs. The debate is trying county officials' ingenuity as they work to placate both farmers and animal rights advocates.

David Zalubowski/AP/File
Prairie dogs peer out from a burrow in Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colo. They build intricate networks of underground tunnels that can be damaging to agricultural lands but also provide habitat for other wildlife.

Adorable critter or plague-ridden pest? Keystone species or destructive rodent? Depending who you talk to, the prairie dog can be all of the above.

For residents and land managers along Colorado’s Front Range, balancing the competing interests of farmers and ranchers, developers, prairie-dog advocates, and ecologists can be a delicate balance that often gets heated.

Tensions around the prairie dog are rooted in a disconnect between the way wildlife advocates and landowners view ecosystems. Farmers, ranchers, and developers see land as a fixed resource. Their livelihoods depend on the ability to control the landscape. Prairie dogs disrupt that control. From the ecologist's perspective, however, the prairie dog and its ever-shifting network of burrows are emblematic of a dynamic ecosystem.

“What it boils down to is values,” says Rob Alexander, an agricultural resources supervisor with Boulder County Parks & Open Space, who oversees the removal of prairie dog colonies on county lands used for agriculture. “We try to achieve a balance among the many legitimate uses of open space…. But it doesn’t mean everyone will be happy all the time.”

At a stakeholder meeting Boulder County held last week to update residents about prairie dog management and some potential changes to policy, very few people in the packed room were happy.

Local farmers complained about county land they lease, designated as “no prairie dog” zones, where “out of control” colonies persist and turn “grassland into moonscapes.”

Terry Parrish, a rancher who has raised livestock and hay on his Boulder County ranch since 1958, says that when he looks at prairie dogs he sees the holes that clear out the landscape and destroy his hay fields. “I was hoping for another plague,” he says, referring to the recurrent illnesses that have been a major threat to prairie dogs in recent years.

Prairie dog advocates, meanwhile, expressed outrage about the more than 18,000 burrows on which the county used lethal measures (numbers which include multiple treatments on the same burrows and are not analogous with the number of animals killed) and questioned why more colonies couldn’t be left alone, or relocated to more suitable lands, and why tax dollars were used to kill them.

“When you use the word ‘infestation,’ that bothers me,” one young woman told county officials. “We’re the ones who have invaded and infested the areas where prairie dogs have lived forever.”

But Mr. Alexander says that the people who come to those meetings tend to represent the extremes. He notes that the county has worked hard over the years to come up with a model that takes varying concerns into account, and has learned to work well with some local prairie dog advocacy groups who understand that the species they love can be hard to reconcile with agriculture.

A keystone species

Prairie dogs create a conundrum across the Rocky Mountain West. Their habitat has been drastically reduced, and plague, which came to the region within the last century, has decimated colonies. Most estimates put current occupied habitat at just 2 or 3 percent of historic highs, though the number is significantly higher than its low point in 1961, when just 364,000 acres across the West had black-tailed prairie dogs.

But for many ranchers and farmers, they will always be a pest, and there was widespread relief when the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided eight years ago that they don’t warrant any protection as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Their intricate networks of burrows can disrupt agriculture and irrigation and injure horses or cows, but ecologists note that the prairie dogs are also a critical species – a “keystone” species upon which many others depend – that has lost almost all their historic habitat.

Joanne Petersen, an activist who came to the meeting and who has lived in Boulder County for more than 20 years, suggested that the killing of prairie dog colonies may be driving away birds of prey. They’re an important food source for many raptors, and are also critical to species like the burrowing owl, which doesn’t eat them, but nests in their burrows.

“They’re an important wildlife species, but I also think of them as a ‘habitat type’,” says Tina Jackson, species conservation coordinator with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, comparing them to beavers or coral – other animals that actually create a unique habitat. “That’s what prairie dogs do on the landscape, and they’ve always done that…. They really are one of those species – when we lose them, we lose a whole bunch of other things.”

That’s one reason why Colorado and several other states closely monitor their prairie dog habitat, trying to ensure that numbers never get too low. The most recent survey, completed a year ago, found that prairie dogs inhabit about 500,000 acres in Colorado, a figure that puts it just over the threshold of “vulnerable” and into “abundant” territory.

A murky path forward

But part of the problem in places like Boulder County isn’t just how many prairie dogs there are, but where those colonies are located. Even as farmers are angrily demanding speedier removal of unwanted colonies, the county is trying to encourage prairie dogs in grasslands large enough to eventually support black-footed ferret reintroduction. The carnivorous ferret – once thought extinct and still one of the most endangered animals in North America – subsists almost exclusively on prairie dogs, and reintroductions require at least 1,500 contiguous acres of prairie dog-inhabited grasslands – difficult to find with increasingly fragmented lands.

Given that goal, many prairie dog advocates argue that the colonies targeted for extermination should instead be relocated to the grasslands where prairie dogs are needed if ferrets can live there.

“They’re all agreed they want black-footed ferret reintroduction,” says Deanna Meyer, director of Prairie Protection Colorado. “You need to have a lot of prairie dogs for that.”

Ms. Meyer got started in advocacy when she noticed that prairie dog colonies near where she lived, in Castle Rock, Colo., were disappearing. When a mall developer announced plans to destroy the largest prairie dog colony left on the Front Range, she started a campaign to stop it, ultimately saving several hundred which got relocated and are currently thriving, she says.

Relocation efforts, however, are costly and not always effective. At the local county meeting, senior wildlife biologist Susan Spaulding described a relocation of 86 prairie dogs last year that ultimately cost $163 per prairie dog. And the most successful reintroductions require existing empty burrows, which don’t currently exist on the properties targeted for black-footed ferrets.

Meyer would like to see such relocation efforts used more often, and hopes for a shift in thought in which prairie dogs are no longer treated as pests. Noting the reputation the area has for strong environmental activism, she says, “Boulder is the place to change that, because it could happen.”

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