By Avery McGaha
Monday, Nov. 24 marks the completion of a city program designed to relocate more than 600 black-tailed prairie dogs from Foothills Community Park in North Boulder. It’s another step in a long-term strategic plan to reduce clashes between the interests of people and the ecologically important animals.
After seven months of trapping, all but a few prairie dogs have moved to their new home, what planners are calling the Waneka Receiving Site. That’s a piece of grassland about 10 miles to the south, near the junction of highways 93 and 128, and across from the National Wind Technology Center. (See map below for details.)
Val Matheson, Boulder’s Urban Wildlife Conservation Coordinator, said relocating the prairie dogs – rather than poisoning or using other lethal means – reflects the wishes of Boulder residents.
“In essence what I’m trying to do is understand the community values,” she said. “Boulder values native wildlife, and so we really try to limit lethal control.”
To relocate the prairie dogs, the city contracted with the Boulder-based Prairie Dog Coalition, an advocacy group under the Humane Society. Just a few staff worked nearly every day for seven months, Matheson said, setting oat-filled traps and monitoring progress. Off-trail access to the grassland around the park was prohibited for two weeks during this most recent round of trapping.
The city decided to relocate this colony nearly a decade ago. A 2006 strategic plan highlighted several areas around town where prairie dogs were encroaching, or likely to encroach, on inconvenient properties.
The Foothills Community Park, for example, is a multiuse facility which includes athletic fields and flood channels. A further encroachment from the nearby prairie dog colony could have created expensive, and potentially dangerous, problems for the community.
“We couldn’t find a way to keep the prairie dogs there, you know, draw a line and say, okay you have to stay beyond this point,” Matheson said. “So we decided that was a removal area, that the whole colony had to go.”
In their natural habitat, prairie dogs are a crucial part of the ecosystem. The behaviors that might be considered a nuisance in human environments, like digging extensive holes, provide many other animals with food and shelter.
Matheson explains it this way: prairie dogs are landscape architects. Set them loose in a field of tall grass, and you’ll quickly return to find those grasses neatly munched and manicured, above a complex system of brand new tunnels and burrows.
That’s great news if you’re a bison, say, who’d like to eat the tasty and nutritious shrubs that grow in place of bland grasses. But in urban environments, where people outnumber bison significantly–and where vulnerable homes, parks and golf courses abound–vast colonies of prairie dogs aren’t as helpful.
And there’s just one more concern about having prairie dogs so close to people. While it’s exceedingly rare in humans, prairie dogs are plagued by disease-carrying fleas.
“On average, every seven years a colony will die out because of the plague,” Matheson said.
The plague? As in the bubonic plague?
“Oh yeah, the Black Death. Yeah.”
Unless you’re a hunter skinning one, however, you’re not likely to be exposed to the disease. But it is possible that dogs and cats could go after a plague-ridden prairie dog.
Plague aside, humans are by far the greatest threat to prairie dog populations, and the ecosystems they support, throughout the West. According to a 2009 report for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, a combination of development, farming and plague has shrunk their habitat dramatically.
In Montana, the report estimates, prairie dogs historically colonized between 1.4 to 6 million acres. While the population in Montana seems to be “secure,” the area is only about 190,000 acres. Nationwide, populations of different prairie dog species teeter on the edge of “threatened” or “endangered” classification under the Endangered Species Act.
At the same time, some landowners still seek violent methods to rid their properties of the burrowing animals.
In 2011, The Boulder Daily Camera reported on the “Rodenator,” an explosive device that ignites the prairie dogs in their burrows. This not only causes a loud explosion, but also apparently traumatizes any neighboring children who happen to be playing outside when adorable, flaming rodents spring out of the ground.
But then again, in places like Frederick and Greeley, residents who do not remove prairie dogs on their land can be fined hundreds of dollars.
In 2012, while Frederick was implementing a $20,000 plan to exterminate its colonies, the City of Boulder embarked on a widely discussed relocation to a patchwork of grasslands near this year’s relocation site. That sparked some colorful online protests, including a ranting website and a spoof twitter account, @BoulderPDog. Here’s how the anonymous author describes the account:
I am a destructive, plague spreading rodent living large on 45,000 tax-payer funded acres in the sanctuary City of Boulder, Colorado. Thanks City Council!
@BoulderPDog has been silent since 2012, but the city and Boulder County are still working to manage the relationship between people and this ecologically important animal. On Thursday, Nov. 20, for example, Boulder County staff met to discuss how prairie dogs have recovered from the 2013 floods, a story covered last fall by the Boulder Stand.
Looking into the future, Matheson spoke of a perennial problem in prairie dog management. The lack of suitable land, with adequate vegetation, space, and other factors, kept this relocation project on hold for seven years, until the city could identify an acceptable location.
“We don’t have a ton of places to put prairie dogs,” she said. “We have more removal areas than receiving sites.”
Considering that most smaller towns aren’t quite as endowed with empty land as Boulder, which has about 35% of its land area designated as prairie dog sanctuary, it’s not hard to see why some might opt for the simpler path of exploding them to the great grassland in the sky.