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Pest of the West

Mark Brooks

People either love them or hate them. And according to the lovers, the haters have spent the last year and a half getting rid of as many Colorado prairie dogs as possible.

In July 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would consider listing the black-tailed prairie dog as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a move that would have made it illegal to kill or move the little rodents without special permission and wreaked havoc on construction projects up and down the Front Range. In January the agency decided not to list the prairie dog, but animal-rights activists say they watched in horror during the preceding months as developers and ranchers -- and even government officials -- went on a prairie dog murder spree, just in case.

Bettina Rosmarino estimates that at least 14,800 prairie dogs have been killed in the Denver area in the last six months. "That's probably only 30 percent of what we know," she says.

Rosmarino, who is the prairie dog campaign coordinator for Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, explains that since prairie dog colonies are often scattered in small pockets of land between office buildings and subdivisions, it's impossible to track exactly how many individual animals there are, let alone how many have been killed. That's why she's starting a mapping project -- a prairie dog census -- in which volunteers will catalogue existing colonies and "watchdogs" will be appointed to keep tabs on the colonies by checking county records to determine who buys the land where they are located.

The biggest known colony to be eliminated in recent months was on land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. In September, thousands of prairie dogs were exterminated at the Englewood Federal Correctional Institution; prison officials feared the animals were creating a security risk by burrowing under fences.

Other major kill areas include Parker, near the intersection of Arapahoe Street and Parker Road, where about 7,000 prairie dogs were wiped out on a 1,000-acre plot that's being converted into a housing development; Arvada, where a 430-acre property owned by that city was the site of 1,000 prairie dog deaths; and Thornton, Englewood, Westminster and Louisville, where developers of several smaller parcels have rid the land of prairie dogs as well.

Last fall the National Wildlife Federation -- which had originally petitioned the federal government for the prairie dog listing -- became alarmed at the rate of extermination in Colorado and asked the USFWS to find out how extensive prairie dog poisonings have been since it filed its petition. (One telling statistic: The Pocatello Supply Depot, a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Idaho, sold 7,595 pounds of zinc phosphide -- better known as rat poison -- in 1999, compared to 4,545 pounds in 1998; and the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, another big supplier of the poison, sold 35,000 pounds in 1999, compared to 14,000 the previous year.)

The government's answer wasn't much help. "As you might expect, it is difficult to arrive at any firm conclusions regarding recent changes in the level of control of black-tailed prairie dogs," the USFWS wrote in January. "Many agencies keep minimal records regarding control efforts...We have estimated that 10 to 20 percent of current black-tailed prairie dog-occupied habitat may be controlled annually by federal, state, tribal, local, and private entities."

But Major Boddicker, Colorado's preeminent prairie dog exterminator, says 1999 was one of his two busiest years ever -- the other was 1994. Boddicker, who has been studying the animals since 1964, when he earned a Ph.D. in wildlife biology at Colorado State University, owns Rocky Mountain Wildlife Services, which he founded in 1985.

"I've worked for every municipality and every major developer along the Front Range, and this idea that the black-tailed prairie dog needs listing is ludicrous," he says. "Environmental groups come out with all this misleading information. You might ask how I know. I know because I'm out there all the time. I've worked in all the Great Plains states, and I just can't grasp where they're getting their figures. It just doesn't jibe with what I've seen."

No one knows how many prairie dogs there are in Colorado; various groups can only guess at the amount of prairie dog habitat that exists in the state, and those estimates range from 44,000 acres to 326,000. Although the USFWS determined that the black-tailed prairie dog does indeed warrant federal protection, it noted that there are other species that need protection first. The agency will consider listing the prairie dog again next February.

But Rosmarino believes the same thing will happen then. "It's politics as usual for the federal government," she says. "Because of pressure from special-interest groups, they've delayed the listing. Developers responded by eradicating prairie dogs when the petition to list them came out, and they'll continue to eradicate knowing that a listing could come in another year. But I anticipate that every year, the Fish and Wildlife Service will delay any kind of decision."

Some of that pressure came from the state of Colorado itself, which threatened in November to sue the USFWS if the prairie dog was listed. "Simply put -- there is insufficient scientific data to support a listing of the black-tailed prairie dog as 'threatened,'" wrote Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Greg Walcher, agriculture commissioner Don Ament and Attorney General Ken Salazar in a letter to the federal agency. "Under the circumstances, and given the obvious impacts to its citizens, it appears Colorado would have little choice than to move forward with litigation to protect its interests should the pending petition ultimately result in a final rule listing the black-tailed prairie dog as 'threatened.'"

Sharon Rose, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, insists the listing wasn't delayed because of pressure from state officials, ranchers and developers. "We have to work in a certain kind of order, and whether people are partial to one species or another, there truly is an order we follow. There are a lot of higher-priority species on our list," she says, adding that the agency also lacks the staff and funding to enforce such a listing. (Some of the animals that are higher priority in the plains region include the Colorado butterfly plant, the lynx and the mountain plover.)

"Some people look at this delay as an opportunity to conserve and manage prairie dogs, and others think of it as an opportunity to get rid of them," Rose says. "I think there will be a lot of focus on our first annual review of the black-tailed prairie dog because a lot of states are looking at strategies to conserve and manage them."

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources and several other state and federal agencies have now developed a program that "achieves conservation of the black-tailed prairie dog in Colorado while recognizing that control is necessary and appropriate in areas where prairie dogs conflict with agriculture and other human activities," according to the wording in the plan.

To most Front Range commuters, there appears to be an overwhelming abundance of prairie dogs, but the USFWS doesn't base its decision to list a species solely on the number of animals that exist. Instead, it considers the following five factors: the level of destruction of the species' habitat; the over-utilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes; the threat of disease or predation; inadequacy of existing state or federal regulatory programs to protect the animals; and other man-made or natural problems facing the species.

To receive federal protection, a species has to meet only one of those qualifications. The black-tailed prairie dog met all five: Less than 1 percent of the original prairie dog habitat remains; in addition to being poisoned for purposes of development, prairie dogs are also "hunted" by people who shoot for sport; their populations are threatened by the plague, which can often wipe out entire colonies; and there is no official protection for the animals in Colorado.

"Different groups are viewing it in different ways, but I see the warranted but precluded listing as a clear victory for prairie dogs," says Catherine Johnson, of the National Wildlife Federation. "The federal government has finally recognized that the black-tailed prairie dog needs protection, and now states have the opportunity to manage the species. Hopefully we can recover them so they won't need to be listed."

And most developers want to do the right thing, she adds. "I get weekly calls from developers who want to relocate prairie dogs," but their hands are tied because of a state law that prohibits the transport of prairie dogs between counties without the approval of the receiving county's commissioners ("Dog Eat Dog," March 25, 1999).

Whatever happens, the absence of prairie dogs is felt every day by activists like Rosmarino and by ordinary people like Joseph, an investment broker from the Denver area. "I'm a very conservative Republican," says Joseph, who asked that his last name not be used. Even so, he says he became an activist after growing attached to a prairie dog colony he discovered while riding his bike around the Denver Tech Center. He enjoyed watching the animals so much that he started taking his fiancée to the colony every Sunday after church. One pair of prairie dogs was always there when they visited, so Joseph and his fiancée gave them names -- Toby and Belinda.

The more Joseph watched, the more he wanted to learn. So he turned to the Internet, where he found more people who love the animals as much as he does.

But three weeks ago, Joseph returned to his beloved colony and found that all of the prairie dogs had been poisoned in preparation for future development. He turned to his newfound friends for support.

"I have some grave news to share," he wrote in a letter posted to a Rocky Mountain Animal Defense e-mail list. "My fiancée and I have been visiting the prairie dog town in the DTC almost every Sunday for the last two years. This town became like a home, a place of friendship, a place to reflect, a place to share happiness...In moments of sadness and uncertainty, this has been a place for healing. We have learned so much about these animals, watching them play, run, kiss, jump and even stretch out on their lairs and bask in the sun...Emotionally I am a wreck. I am overwhelmed and I am not sure what to do now about this."