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Prairie dogs are a nuisance for most farmers and ranchers

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To learn more about the Colorado Department of Wildlife’s prairie dog relocation permitting, go to http://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/SOC-Black-tailedPrairieDogPermits.aspx.

For more information about the prairie dog mitigation services offered by pest control companies, contact Kersey’s The Hired Gun at (970) 405-3249 or go to their website at http://hiredgunweedcontrol.com, or contact Windsor’s Rocky Mountain Wildlife Services, Inc., at (970) 515-3290 or go to their website at http://www.rmwildlife.com.

Not always enemies

While most ranchers battle prairie dogs, the Twin Buttes ranch in Roundup, Mont., took a different approach. Rancher Ned Tranel Jr. told the National Wildlife Federation he and his father, Tranel Sr., believe every piece of the ecosystem on their land had a place, so instead of working against it, they work with it.

No animals are trapped or killed on the 77,000 acre ranch — not even coyotes, though the Tranels aren’t partial to those.

“I’m not sure what good a coyote does us, but if you start killing one animal, where do you stop? We don’t know what species you can eliminate and still keep the system healthy,” Tranel Sr. said in an article printed on the National Wildlife Federation’s website.

The ranch has about 2,000 acres of prairie dog towns on it, and the Tranels acknowledge that it’s very different to have the animals on a very small part of your acreage than a large portion of it.

But for Tranel Jr., seeing the wildlife activity that takes place around prairie dog towns and seeing nature at play is worth taking the unconventional road.

“For me, it’s more enjoyable to ranch in a natural, environmental way. Economically it’s the only viable method,” he said in the article.

Two years ago, Kersey, Colo., rancher Dale Jackson didn't have any prairie dogs on his property. The nearest colony was nearly a mile away. Now, there are at least 10 prairie dog hills and countless holes in the ground where Jackson grazes his cattle. About half of his property is covered, and he expects he'll see the furry rodents popping up in his front yard by summer.

Northern Colorado has struggled with prairie dogs since the 1800s, Jackson said, and he expects the area always will, just like counties in Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota. The habitat is perfect for the small rodents, with good grass to graze and lots of open space.

But when a prairie dog colony moves into a pasture, what they leave behind can be devastating for a landowner.

There are several reasons for this, Jackson said. When a prairie dog tunnels into the ground, it leaves behind deep holes, and if a cow or horse steps into them, the animal may break a leg and have to be put down.

Prairie dogs often carry fleas, which carry diseases — even some as grim as the sylvatic plague — which can be passed to livestock.

But the bottom line for ranchers like Jackson is competition — prairie dogs graze, just like cattle or sheep. In semi-arid climates like Colorado's, where it's tough enough to find the water to keep a pasture producing forage for a herd of cattle, a few thousand extra mouths to feed can ruin a ranch.

Prairie dogs eat the same types of grasses cattle and horses do, according to the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks prairie dog program summary. The animals typically keep the grasses short so they can see their surroundings, and after a prolonged period of prairie dog activity, these grasses disappear.

"They are often replaced with less palatable grass species with lower nutritional value," according to the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks website. "In farmed ground, prairie dogs can decimate or destroy a crop of alfalfa, grains or hay."

The damage to native grasses can take at least a decade to repair, Jackson said.

CROSSING THE ROAD

Elijah Hatch, CEO of The Hired Gun in Kersey, said there's no better place to see the damage to northern Colorado's grazing lands than on U.S. 76. When he's driving from Denver to Fort Morgan on the interstate, one side of the highway is full of fields of native Colorado grasses, ready for grazing. The other side is populated with known noxious weeds like thistles, mullein and koccia. That's where the prairie dogs are, and it's only a matter of time before the animals cross to the other side of the highway, too.

As cities develop, prairie dog colonies are pushed further into agricultural areas, which then take depopulation efforts, like those The Hired Gun and other pest control companies provide. The Hired Gun's prairie dog control service is called baiting, and involves a team leaving poisoned bait in the active burrows on commissioned land. Typically, these treatments are reasonably successful, Hatch said, but the thing about prairie dogs is they will come back if given the chance.

If a ranch's neighbors don't also have a prairie dog mitigation program in place, the rodents are likely to spread back into the treated land. Also, for large colonies, multiple treatments are typically required.

"It really depends on the size of the infestation," Hatch said. "If you have 30,000 burrows and we get an 80 percent kill, that still leaves a considerable amount of animals out there repopulating."

Prairie dog mitigation can be costly — The Hired Gun charges about $2,200 for the treatment of 1,000 prairie dog burrows — and that prohibits some landowners from being able to take action, even with the potential monetary losses of cattle or pasture.

Hatch also pointed out that once the mitigation team leaves, the work isn't done — once the carcasses are removed, the land has to be plowed to fill in the burrows, or prairie dogs or another type of burrower will fill in the holes.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Service also issues permits for landowners to remove prairie dogs from their properties for relocation to either a suitable habitat or a habitat populated with birds of prey or the black-footed ferret, an endangered species whose natural prey is prairie dogs.

The U.S. Forest Service has introduced the black-footed ferret on prairie dog lands across the country to try to control the population, but many areas of concern aren't suitable habitats for the ferret. For example, Jackson said it's highly unlikely the Kersey area will ever see its pest problem taken care of with ferrets, because it doesn't have enough open grasslands for the animals to roam.

In Boulder County — whose prairie dog mitigation program has relocated colonies onto conservation areas with appropriate grassland management and predation — the black-footed ferret has not yet been introduced. However, several organizations within Boulder and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working together to make suitable ferret habitats by 2020.

There are other options available for prairie dog control, too, like nonlethal boundary control. Some success has been seen with these types of programs in areas in South Dakota and on the Pawnee National Grasslands, said Dennis Jaeger, forest supervisor for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland at a recent meeting about prairie dog control in Weston County, Wyo.

"We're not necessarily limited as much as some think, we eliminated prairie dogs from 572,000 acres of National Grassland north of Gillette," Jeager said. "So let's look through the windshield instead of the rear-view mirror."

There are also options for landowners to pursue trapping or flushing prairie dogs out with soapy water, said Brett Boddicker of Rocky Mountain Wildlife Services, Inc. Though his company only offers lethal prairie dog removal via fumigation or baiting, he said the nonlethal options have gotten more effective in recent years. They are more expensive, though.

ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS

But despite progress in mitigation methods, the agricultural communities and mitigation specialists face public misconceptions about prairie dogs, too. Hatch said the animals should be called prairie rats, since once you call them a dog, they seem like a pet rather than a pest.

Still, Hatch said he understands the sentiments against killing prairie dogs.

"They are fun to watch. You can pull over on the side of the road, watch them chirp back and forth. They come up out of the hole, they wiggle their tails. If you're not directly affected negatively by the inhabitation of these animals, you're going to think they're cute and cuddly and you're going to be opposed to anyone harming them," he said. "But at the same time, some of the arguments for not hurting prairie dogs do not make sense. One of my favorites is, 'This is their natural habitat, don't mess with them' — we've already messed with them."

Hatch said the role of urbanization and development has been huge in disrupting prairie dog habitats — every new home and business built on undeveloped land affects the animals' territory.

"Every time a new person builds a home, you are messing with their habitat," he said. "If you live in northern Colorado, you are guilty."

Though the animals still pose significant issues, their numbers are greatly lower than they were in the past. The Colorado Department of Wildlife estimates that at its peak, the prairie dog population in the state covered about 7 million acres. Boddicker said though the state is currently reassessing prairie dog populations, the most recent estimates put that number well below 1 million acres. Prairie dog numbers have been reduced through population losses to the plague, habitat loss from both agricultural and urban development and depopulation techniques like poisoning and recreational shooting, according to the Colorado Department of Wildlife.

The battle between the furry little pests and the farmers and ranchers isn't likely to end anytime soon, either, Hatch said. As long as there's open space and prairie dogs to tunnel into it, there will be contention.

Jackson has been lucky so far. None of his cattle have stepped into a hole, and he hopes that streak continues. But he's already seeing some of his pastureland quality decreasing, especially on his nonirrigated acreage.

He swapped one of the fields he usually plants to hay into millet this year in an effort to throw the rodents for a loop — it worked, but his crop rotation won't sustain indefinite millet planting. He'll have to go back to hay next year, which the prairie dogs love.

Jackson isn't sure what he's going to do, but he knows if he wants his operation to stay profitable, he will have to take action.

He knows the animals serve a necessary purpose in the ecosystem, and he knows many people care about them. He doesn't want to see prairie dogs gone entirely — just off his land.

"A lot of people would like to come out and make pets out of them and whatnot," Jackson said. "I'd sure let them have all they want to come out and get." ❖