Humble prairie dogs thrive in open space for sale by rec district

(Image: Raymond Gehman/

As the move to sell open space in Jefferson County has riled homeowners in the Shadow Ridge development near Simms and Ward, prairie dogs have come to the forefront as residents point to the critters as being an indicator of the health of the ecosystem as a whole, providing food for a long line of hungry predators.

Jim Crane, a homeowner in a neighboring subdivision, told the Foothills Parks and Recreation District Board Tuesday evening that the prairie dog population is down to less than three percent of its pre-settlement population. “Prairie dogs are an indicator species, but they get a bad rap.”

He said the open space prairie now being peddled to developers by the District is a “unique piece of pre-development prairie. It can’t be replaced.”

Prairie dogs, though, are considered a nuisance species by some, one municipalities and developers alike are almost constantly trying to get rid of, either by relocation or through lethal means. The City of Boulder recently failed to win approval of a plan to relocate a prairie dog colony to Gunbarrel. (Boulder wanted the move more than Gunbarrel did.) Val Matheson, the city’s Urban Wildlife Conservation Coordinator, said the next step is still undecided.

Prairie dogs are also an ecologically important species whose numbers have plummeted, thanks primarily to habitat loss. So the question of how they are relocated is an important one.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the black-tailed prairie dog has experienced a 95 percent reduction in available habitat over the last century, which in turn means a 95 percent population decline, according to Lindsey Sterling Krank, director of the Boulder-based Prairie Dog Coalition, “because prairie dogs can’t occupy an area that’s not available to them.”

“Sometimes people see them on medians or in submarginal habitats and say, ‘prairie dogs are everywhere. Look, they’re on this highway median,'” said Sterling Krank. But, “prairie dogs are not everywhere, they only have this highway median. Where once you used to see contiguous populations from Mexico to Canada, now sometimes you can travel for hundreds of miles before you see a colony.”

Relocation to an abandoned colony is the first choice for many wildlife and ecosystem specialists, since it gives prairie dogs the greatest chance for survival while also preserving natural ecosystems. The two most common relocation methods are live-trapping the animals and flushing their burrows with a non-toxic foam mixture that essentially drives them to the surface.

When relocating colonies, the Prairie Dog Coalition makes sure to do a coterie, or family group, mapping first. “That way, If Mary wakes up to Joe every morning,” said Sterling Krank, “she can have a little bit more comfort knowing that she’s going to be next to the same neighbor, and that they made it here and their territorial boundaries are still intact.”

But that’s a lot of work. It’s the gold treatment as far as prairie dog management goes, and most colonies aren’t so lucky. Prairie dogs are sometimes killed, frozen, and sent to sanctuaries to become food for birds of prey, such as at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program.

It is not uncommon for prairie dogs to also be moved into black-footed ferret reintroduction zones, where they are also a source of food but they are moved alive and in colonies, so the idea is to resemble a more natural ecosystem. An endangered species that once thrived in the region, the black-footed ferret “only lives in prairie dog towns. He was the internal predator in the prairie dog down, he kind of kept control of the colony,” said Gay Balfour, owner of Dog Gone, a prairie dog relocation company that for many years would bring prairie dogs to black-footed ferret reintroduction zones.

To get them there, Balfour for years relied on a vacuum system that is often viewed as inhumane, a claim that Balfour dismissed as a “fallacy put out by PETA.” But it’s expensive, he said, costing around $300,000 for a new truck (which is often a sewer excavation truck, converted for use on prairie dogs) and $500 a day to run the truck.

Ultimately, however, killing prairie dogs has been the most common way to deal with them. They are often poisoned, but they are also shot, and sometimes bulldozed alive. Even the poison varies. Carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide can be used, and are seen as either more humane or less toxic, but more likely is one of several EPA-approved poisons. These, however, can take up to three days to take effect, according to Sterling Krank, and also work their way up the food chain through predators that eat prairie dogs.

Killing prairie dogs is easier than relocating them, the politics of which are complicated. “It requires a permit from us to do [relocate prairie dogs], and also requires permission of receiving landowners in a lot of cases,” said Randy Hampton, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Even if you’re going on public land, you have to have approvals. And we’re reluctant to allow a lot of movement because of disease concerns.”

And the permitting requirements themselves facilitate the trend toward killing. Black-tailed prairie dogs are classified by the Colorado Division of Wildlife as “other small game,” and by the Colorado Department of Agriculture as a “destructive rodent pest,” which means they are afforded little protection and are fair game for landowners to hunt, trap, or kill.  

Generally speaking, said Sterling Krank, “it is much more difficult to get a permit from the Division of Wildlife to relocate a prairie dog than it is to kill a prairie dog. It’s a much more arduous, lengthy process.”

So what will Boulder do? Matheson doesn’t know, but the city’s official policy is to move through a six-step decision-making process in handling prairie dog colonies. The first choice is one that has the least-disturbing impact on a colony, and the last resort is lethal. Prairie dog numbers may be in decline, but human numbers and the sizes of cities are not. Boulder officials designated the colony for removal and unless that status is changed, one of the six steps will have to be taken.

Sterling Krank, for her part, would like to see better land use management and planning, first of all by preventing evacuated land from being re-inhabited. “So you don’t have to keep killing, or you don’t have to keep relocating,” she said.

Sterling Krank has written a letter to the Foothills Parks and Recreation District on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States, which her group is affiliated with, urging the board not to sell open space.

Scot Kersgaard contributed to this report.

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