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.
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