Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

Prairie dogs spark lively conversation


January 15, 2020

Amy Scanes-Wolfe

Prairie dogs are a contentious issue in Boulder County, so it is no surprise that Jan. 7, Boulder County's Annual Public Meeting on Prairie Dog Management ran overtime.

In fact, it was difficult to derail the lively conversation long enough to welcome an unexpected visitor. Despite several murmured protests, the crowd hushed when a representative from the Birds of Prey Foundation pulled out a live red-tailed hawk.

The hawk was no doubt intended as a reminder of the integral role prairie dogs play as a keystone species in the prairie ecosystem. Senior Wildlife Biologist Susan Spaulding touched on the status of two endangered species that rely on this tunneling rodent--the burrowing owl and the black footed ferret.

There are plans to reintroduce the latter into the south central grasslands of the county, which are co-owned with City of Boulder. To successfully reintroduce the requisite 30 black footed ferrets into the area, it is necessary to have 1,500 acres of contiguous prairie dog colony.

The resident prairie dog population was nearing this goal until an epidemic, presumably plague, wiped out 75% of the colony last fall. The good news is that the county's proactive dusting of colonies with Delta Dust and vaccinating prairie dogs against the Sylvatic Plague prevented the complete decimation of the colonies.

This action probably sounded like bad news to a large contingent of the audience. While one part of the county struggles to keep prairie dogs alive, the other is waging war against ever-expanding numbers encroaching into No-Prairie Dog zones or NPDs.

NPDs are are one of three county designations regarding prairie dog management. It describes areas where agricultural and human uses are prioritized over wildlife habitat. Most NPD's are agricultural land, especially irrigated cropland. MOAs are Multiple Objective Areas, where prairie dogs can be managed as necessary. In Habitat Conservation Areas (HCAs), nature takes its course, and prairie dogs are protected.

Currently, NPD zones comprise 18,712 of Boulder County's 65,767 open space acres.

The problem is, prairie dogs don't always stay away from No-Prairie-Dog zones. Since they can't read, the county put up a chicken-wire barrier fence. Though not 100% effective, the fence is a step up from vinyl visual barriers, which had a nasty habit of blowing away. In 2019, the county put up 2,500 linear feet of barrier fencing.

When prairie dogs cross the line, lethal control by live trapping and carbon monoxide exposure is the county's typical measure. Euthanized prairie dogs become an important free food source for black footed ferret recovery programs and the Birds of Prey Foundation.

This year, the county doubled the resources dedicated to prairie dog removal. It also changed its strategy. "For several years, we realized our approach was to jump around in response to brush fires," said Rob Alexander, agricultural resources supervisor. After they treated one colony, neighbors and survivors would quickly repopulate the vacated burrows. "There's nothing worse than subjecting prairie dogs to lethal control... and then having to do it again."

The county's new focus is to completely eliminate prairie dogs in one area before moving onto another. They are also quick to nip recolonization in the bud. Twenty-four properties were cleared in their entirety, and though 30 remain untouched, the county was twice as effective at eliminating prairie dogs in 2019 as in 2018.

The audience raised several concerns about the county's methods. One was the toxicity of Delta Dust, a broad spectrum insecticide used to kill plague-carrying fleas. The county stressed that it places the dust only directly into burrows, and it hopes to eventually transition to a vaccination-only approach.

Another discussion was that leaving burrows intact after eradication may tempt new prairie dogs to move in. The county often does backfill burrows, manually destroy them, and till and replant abandoned areas, but not always.

Perhaps the most contested policy was the moratorium period between March 1 and May 31 in which prairie dogs cannot be removed from established colonies. The original intent of this 1999 decision was to prevent adult prairie dogs from being trapped and removed, leaving defenseless pups behind. The county revisited this moratorium, but decided to test their new strategy before attempting to amend it.

Residents can find more details about the county's prairie dog management policy on the Boulder County website.


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