Guest Post: Prairie dogs are not pests

Prairie Dog. Photo by Sharon Drummond via Flickr: Creative Commons
Photo by Sharon Drummond via Flickr: Creative Commons

They’re easy to miss when you’re driving by. Tiny, sandy bodies blend in perfectly with the light dirt in which they make their homes. However, if you’re able to catch a glimpse, the sheer number of them in one lot of land is staggering. Every glance back reveals more than you saw the first time.

Prairie dogs are often still considered pests, an impediment to land development that always seems to be happening in a state where everyone is moving. It’s often among construction that you see colonies of them, and it seems out of place that they continue to live among suburbs and even in the city. Their little patches of dirt stand out just as an oasis in a desert does. Looking at these lots is reminiscent of a scene in the movie “Up.” The entire city develops and what is left is Mr. Fredricksen’s house, a lone lot in a sea of construction.

Last December, Denver Water paid an exterminator $50,000 to gas prairie dogs on vacant land it owns in a densely populated area in southeast Denver. Channel 7 reported that while some nearby residents worried the prairie dogs were getting too close to their children, wildlife advocates in the area built a fence they said did a good job of keeping prairie dogs away from homes. But Denver Water eliminated the colony anyway, saying it tried hard but couldn’t find another long-term solution.

As a developer, it’s easy to imagine how prairie dogs are merely seen as pests. Brushed away as easily as you would swat away a fly circling your head. And certainly flies have a place in the world too. But prairie dogs offer much more to the ecosystem in Colorado than most people are aware of. The Black Tailed Prairie Dog, a Colorado native longer than most, is a keystone species in our beautiful state. Being classified as a keystone species means that the entire ecosystem depends on this one species in order to keep balance and order within other populations. For example, in Colorado, there are at least nine different species that directly depend on the prairie dog. And what’s more, 137 other species are associated with them. To put it another way, without the prairie dog, the ecosystem that they live in, and that we share with them, could cease to exist.

So it’s not really an understatement to say that prairie dogs are a big deal, although their size might not suggest it. Educational programs at the Denver Zoo often feature prairie dogs, which are presented by volunteer handlers to the crowd. Seeing them up close and not at a distance helps children and adults alike relate to prairie dogs in a different way. The docents at the zoo explain what a keystone species is and why they are so important to Colorado. And after leaving the program, people are often quick to correct others when comments are made about prairie dogs being pests. I’ve even found myself doing it after talking about prairie dogs with my mother, who volunteers at the Denver Zoo.

The idea that everything is connected in the world is true, it’s not just something Pocahontas sang about when we were kids. It may not seem consequential that a small group of prairie dogs is relocated or removed from a new development area, but that action has a ripple affect on the wildlife and the people around it. Without prairie dogs, the vegetation in an area becomes out of control, or overgrazed in areas where prairie dogs are relocated. Larger predators like coyotes and foxes that once ate prairie dogs as their main food source may turn to smaller household pets if nothing else is available. But more than likely, it will be the coyotes that are blamed, not the humans who disrupted the natural food chain and the ecosystem.

And it is very easy to think that there won’t be any larger affect by removing what is believed to be a pest if you haven’t spent any time getting to know them. A quick read over this article or a Google search will tell you more about prairie dogs than you ever knew and give you a newfound respect, or acknowledgment, at the very least, for the role they play in the local ecosystems. When it comes to developers’ interests versus prairie dog habitat, it’s probably clear who will win out most times. But as inhabitants of this land, it’s important to at least educate ourselves about the damage we are doing and attempt to minimize it as much as possible.

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact tips@coloradoindependent.com or visit our submission page.

9 COMMENTS

  1. The word “Pest” is derived from the term “pestilence”, defined as “a fatal epidemic disease, especially bubonic plague.”

    If organisms like mosquitoes, rats and prairie dogs don’t qualify as pests for spreading pestilence….do pests really exist at all?

  2. i lived outdoors for a decade on the outskirts of Boulder, CO. At the beginning, there were no prairie dogs in my area. Near the end of my homeless camping career, they had overrun the place. There simply weren’t enough predators around to keep prairie dog numbers in check!

    Besides, every fox, coyote, and raptor I observed obviously preferred a nice, tasty rabbit to those nasty, flea-bitten varmints that so many naive people think are indispensable.

      • I’ve never encountered any wild critter as dumb as a prairie dog, They were so intent on stealing my chips, cookies, etc. that they would ignore my presence right next to my food cache. I used my cane (needed because of an arthritic hip) to whack several of ’em on top of their ugly little heads; they just looked at me like I was the stupid one! It was no deterrent at all.

  3. A few years ago, when Boulder was being overrun with Prairie Rats, the good people wanted the authorities to capture the animals and move them to a better place – say the prairies and pastures of southeast Colorado. They could not understand why the landowners of those Godforsaken acres would not welcome such an addition. The landowners, farmers and ranchers who own cattle and horses, tractors and plows, refused to take in Boulder’s cute little rodent. I am not sure what eventually happened to the animals but they are now out of balance to the number of preditors in the areas they live. People say “save the prairie dog” but not “save the coyotes who eat the prairie dogs”. If every female raises between 2 and 8 pups a year, an area is soon overpopulated. Like deer, prairie dog population needs to be controlled by man, since man has caused the ecosystem to be unbalanced. A keystone species out of balance with its habitat becomes a detriment to the ecosystem.

  4. “But prairie dogs offer much more to the ecosystem in Colorado than most people are aware of.”
    Like pneumonic plague.
    More millennial dipshittery.

  5. I hate the prairie dogs anyway, because they were making a lot of holes on the open space behind my house, ruining the property values, and otherwise infecting dogs with fleas and the fact they are rodents like rats. I have frineds who go hunting for these critters in texas every years, with their varmit rifles and love it. Ranchers and Farmers hate these rodents because the holes are bad for livestock and horses, that might break a leg falling into the holes. So I enjoyed giving my HOA crap until they would do their job for a change, and take action. Sometimes, you have to break a few eggs to make an omlet.

  6. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment statistics, of the 51 plague cases in Colorado since 1957, only 7 cases, one a fatality, were directly linked to prairie dogs. In four other cases prairie dogs and other rodents species were found infected in the area. Of those 7 cases two were related to people skinning prairie dogs, two were the result of family pets bringing home fleas after being allowed to roam freely in prairie dog colonies and three were people infected from working, playing or hiking in infected colonies.

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