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.

  3 comments for “Where have all the prairie dogs gone?

  1. Gregory Iwan
    February 28, 2012 at 11:08 am

    I was part of a multifaceted ad-hoc committee organized in the southeast metro (Denver) region to consider a then-current proposal to place the Black-Tailed prairie dog on the Endangered Species List, or at least to list it as “threatened.” Included among committee members were wildlife biologists, chemists, epidemiologists, even a representative of what is now called the state Parks & Wildlife Division. We were never certain what a “keystone” species might be, but the group could make no case for treating what is actually a prairie RAT as one. Lables do matter. Moreover, the listing became moot at the federal level once the “powers that be” were shown that “regulating” the prairie rat population was at most a fleeting concept, for the animal reproduces at an astronomically prodigious rate. No euphemism for destruction is suitable, to be sure. But to afford these rodents a place nearly as highly regarded as those accorded such as the Bald Eagle, etc., is probably misguided. I’m not for “development” as an absolute priority in any case, and so I do not view bulldozers versus rodents as a cause celebre. I do, however, view it as a somewhat amusing waste of time and energy.

  2. August 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Greg, I agree with most of the comments that you make to FRL articles, but I take exception to referring to prairie dogs as prairie rats. That bias rings of comments usually reserved to wingnuts in Longmont and Weld County. I suggest you re-evaluate your stance. There is amble evidence that the dogs are indeed a keystone species upon which even more threatened species are dependent. And the status of their population should be considered on a site-specific basis, at minimum.

    As I’ve said about the wingnuts in the past, they have one foot in the 1950s and another in the 19th century and if given their druthers, would take us back to the 17th century or further.

    I’ve had occasion to meet with a representative of the Colorado Wildlife Division. Many of their employees would do well to transfer to the Department of Agriculture where some of their views might fit. Like so many other state departments, their allegiance to their statutory mandate is minimal if not existent. It all comes down to the Governor’s (whomever he might be) palm being greased by special interest contributors. And prairie dog preservations hardly fit into the category of high-dollar contributors. Think about it and you will see the truth of which I speak.

  3. Gregory Iwan
    August 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Biologically they are rodents and VERY close to rats. They are nowhere in the same genus as dogs. Complete misnomer there. I take an orbital view whenever possible, and I don’t always come down facing east. I find that much more useful for me, but I don’t expect others to follow suit.

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