Where have all the prairie dogs gone?

Black-tailed Prairie Dog

Black-tailed Prairie Dog (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Division has approved Boulder County’s permit application for the Rabbit Mountain Open Space prairie dog relocation.  Starting on July 1st, black-tailed prairie dogs will be live-trapped at the Alexander Dawson county property near Boulder Creek and released to their new home at Rabbit Mountain Open Space in north Boulder County.  The prairie dog relocation is necessary because the Army Corps of Engineers and Boulder County Parks and Open Space will be doing major stream re-alignment work in the area and the prairie dogs in question would be impacted by earthmoving operations.

I applaud Boulder County’s effort to preserve prairie dogs at the Alexander Dawson property.  The black-tailed prairie dog is a keystone species and a Colorado species of special concern and deserves this type of protection.  While the county should be commended for its conservation effort, the Rabbit Mountain relocation is certainly way overdue. It has been 10 years since the county conducted its last prairie dog relocation.  During that time, Boulder County has been relying exclusively on lethal control to manage prairie dogs on Parks and Open Space (POS) properties. I define lethal control as wildlife control that results in the eventual death of wildlife, including trapping and donation of prairie dogs to wildlife recovery centers.

According to county wildlife data, over 15,000 prairie dogs have been trapped on POS properties and donated to wildlife recovery centers to become food for black-footed ferrets and raptors since 2002.  An unknown number of prairie dogs have been fumigated on county properties.  The county does not provide an estimate of the number of prairie dogs they poisoned: it only gives the number of properties fumigated.

Lethal control has primarily occurred on Multiple Objective Areas (MOA), where prairie dogs can supposedly coexist with other uses, and No Prairie Dog (NPD) areas.  The prairie dog populations on the Habitat Conservation Areas (HCAs), which according to the Boulder County’s prairie dog management plan “form the foundation of the prairie dog conservation strategy,” have been significantly declining in recent years due to outbreaks of sylvatic plague.  In 2004, there were 1581 acres occupied by prairie dogs on HCAs.  After 2005, prairie dog acreage on habitat conservation areas decreased to 418 acres in 2011, or 7.76% of the total acreage designated as habitat conservation areas.  This small percentage of prairie dog habitat on HCAs is not sufficient to implement a prairie dog conservation strategy for Boulder County; nor is it adequate to support associated wildlife species that depend on prairie dog habitat as a food and shelter source in wildlife conservation areas.

In 1999, I attended the commissioners’ public hearing for the adoption of the county prairie dog management plan.  At the hearing, Boulder county residents spoke up in favor of the plan, believing that prairie dog conservation would be its primary objective.  For several years Parks and Open Space staff made a concerted effort to preserve prairie dogs by relocating them.  In 2002, at staff’s recommendation, the plan was amended to include the management option of trapping and donating prairie dogs to wildlife recovery centers.  Thereafter, wild-to-wild relocation was abandoned by the county even though its own management plan states “non-lethal controls are the preferred methods of removing prairie dogs from inappropriate locations.”  For the past ten years Boulder County has ignored this important language and instead has managed prairie dogs in the “Old Wild West” tradition, as a pest instead of as the keystone species that it rightfully is.

The Rabbit Mountain relocation has been a long time coming.  For many people, the relocation is a step in the right direction in fulfilling the county’s promise to its citizens that non-lethal methods will be the preferred management option for our prairie dogs.  This is clearly evident in the nearly 1500 comments Boulder County received in response to the Rabbit Mountain relocation, which “show broad community support for relocation as an alternative to lethal control in Boulder County,” according to a county document.  Looking beyond 2012, it still remains to be seen whether Boulder County will expand its prairie dog conservation efforts in a meaningful way.  Let’s hope the Rabbit Mountain relocation is not just a token conservation effort that will have to do for another ten years.

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