Colorado cities relocate prairie dogs, don’t rule out lethal control
for The Fence Post
Mark Snyder Jr. recently visited the prairie dog colony he helped relocate from Parker, Colo., to their new location at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
“They’re living it up,” he said.
Last summer, Snyder initiated a project to save a prairie dog colony on land about to be developed, right next to where he lived at the time. Snyder gathered donations and with the help of the Humane Society of the United States and other volunteers trapped and relocated 183 prairie dogs.
That project prompted the town of Parker to investigate and ultimately pass an ordinance in April encouraging future relocation projects or, if that isn’t feasible, requiring humane extermination methods such as carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, said John Fussa, the town’s community development director. The goal was to balance landowner needs with responsible growth and preserving the natural areas and wildlife the town has left. Parker has been experiencing rapid growth in the past two decades and a remaining 25 percent of it’s land is not yet developed including, some former ranches with prairie dog colonies.
Some other lethal control methods result in painful deaths for prairie dogs and can harm and kill other species not intentionally targeted, Fussa said. Plus it can leave residue in the soil, causing damage to animal, insect and plant life. “It can have longer-term consequences,” he said.
Synder, who now lives in nearby Lone Tree, Colo., said relocating the prairie dogs cost about $27,000, however he later learned of other organizations that could have done it for $10,000 to $12,000. The prairie dogs were caught and released in 48 man-made burrows placed underground at their new location at the wildlife refuge. Snyder was very happy to have found somewhere to bring the prairie dogs. “That’s the hardest part with prairie dog relocation,” he said. “Nobody wants them.”
The prairie dogs were triple treated for fleas before being moved and continue to receive yearly treatments at the wildlife refuge, sometimes more often when there are plague outbreaks, such as happened recently. People are very scared of contracting the plague from prairie dogs but that’s extremely rare, he said, adding that over the past 20 years more people have died, typically children, from the irresponsible use of poisons to kill prairie dogs. “It’s pretty noxious stuff,” he said.
An hour north, in Boulder, Colo., the city has, for two decades, prioritized non-lethal control measures to manage prairie dogs in the city and on city-managed public lands, said Phillip Yates, a spokesperson for City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP). However, that may be shifting because of the growth of prairie dog populations on agricultural land. “Wildlife monitoring has indicated that some OSMP irrigated agricultural lands have the highest levels of prairie dog occupation since the department began mapping prairie dog colonies in 1996,” Yates said.
Boulder has more than 46,000 acres of OSMP land, of which 6,403 acres are irrigated and leased to ranchers and farmers. In 2018 and 2019 nearly 1,000 prairie dogs were relocated from multiple agricultural lands owned by the city. All were relocated to a grassland preserve, also part of the OSMP land owned by the city.
On Aug. 11, after a review of prairie dog management practices, Boulder’s city council will hold a virtual meeting to discuss the issue. They will review recommendations from the Open Space Board of Trustees, which include relocating prairie dogs from 30 to 40 acres of irrigated ag lands annually, with a 100 percent removal goal, and remove about 100 to 200 acres via lethal control annually.
“OSMP estimates that a maximum of about 40 acres of prairie dogs (approximately 1,200 prairie dogs) can be relocated each year, a rate that under current conditions is not likely to keep up with the expansion of prairie dog populations in removal and transition areas,” according to the review document provided to The Fence Post by OSMP. “That will not make noticeable improvements in the situation facing tenants with prairie dogs on the irrigable lands in their leasehold.”
The 59-page review document outlined multiple prairie dog control options, both lethal and nonlethal, and gave cost estimates. For example, average relocation costs were estimated at about $3,000 to $4,400 per acre, with 80 to 95 percent of the animals relocated. Pressurized gas, or injecting carbon monoxide into burrows for lethal control, was estimated at $221 per acre. The city council has also approved staff investigating the possibility of introducing black-footed ferrets, an endangered animal that relies highly on prairie dogs as a food source, with plans to seek public input in late 2021.
Roe Ecological Services, which works primarily in Colorado and Kansas, offers clients the option of trapping, euthanizing and donating prairie dogs to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, said Kelly Roe, principal wildlife biologist. The company uses carbon dioxide to euthanize the animals because it considers it the most humane option. “Trap, euthanize and donate is more expensive than fumigation because it is substantially more labor intensive,” she said. “But it is the right thing to do. Not only for the prairie dogs, but the raptors; both species we continue to adversely impact with urban development and sprawl.”
Some cities have recently put policies in place barring the option of donating the prairie dogs to the raptor program. The cities now allow only live relocation, which is difficult because it’s hard to find locations to move the animals to, or the use of fumigation or poisons. “These policies are shortsighted, inhumane and wasteful,” she said. “Not only are the prairie dogs wasted, and unable to fulfill a part of their biological purpose, which is to be food for predators, any other wildlife in the burrow are also killed.”
The majority of what Roe Ecological does for clients in prairie dog work results in donations to the raptor program. However, the company also assists some clients with putting up movement barriers to keep prairie dogs from coming onto or leaving certain areas or relocating animals. The relocations can be done through trapping or passive methods, which means using techniques to encourage all or part of a colony to move elsewhere, she said.
Lethal management techniques kills prairie dogs immediately, said Lindsey Sterling Krank, director of Prairie Dog Protection for the Humane Society, but it doesn’t provide long-term conflict prevention. “For example, non-lethal management can include figuring out how and why prairie dogs are migrating into an area where they are unwanted and change their path of migration, establishing barriers and buffer zones to prevent migration into incompatible or off limit areas and incentivizing producers to provide wildlife habitat so they can host both wildlife and a viable agriculture operation,” she said. ❖
— Jessen is a freelance writer living in Minnesota with her nurse husband and daughter. They recently settled down after more than three years living a travel lifestyle, thanks to her husband’s travel nurse job. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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