In a meeting that began on May 7 and didn't end until just shy of 2 a.m. the next morning, the Boulder City Council voted to authorize staff to consider so-called lethal control as part of its management of the community's prairie dogs.
Lindsey Sterling Krank, director for the Humane Society of the United States's Prairie Dog Coalition, understands why Boulder ranchers and other property owners who argued in favor of the death penalty for the creatures at this week's hearing and another that took place last month might feel frustrated.
"Prairie dogs can be a hard species to live with for some," she acknowledges. "But we need to learn to not only live with them, but love them."
That's why the coalition, in conjunction with WildEarth Guardians, has developed what it calls a prairie dog tool kit intended to show local governments and stakeholders that the animals can be managed without killing them. The two-part presentation is accessible below.
Val Matheson, senior urban wildlife conservation coordinator for the City of Boulder, stresses that officials would prefer to stop short of figuratively dropping the ax on prairie dogs, too.
"We try to limit lethal controls whenever we can," Matheson says. "We're trying to impact prairie dog colonies as little as possible. We evaluate all other possibilities prior to getting to lethal control."
When a colony is wiped out, the prairie dogs that once lived there aren't the only animals affected, stresses Lindsey Sterling Krank, who lives in the Boulder area. "Nine different species of wildlife depend directly on prairie dog populations for survival: hawks, the burrowing owl, the golden eagle, coyotes. Prairie dogs are native species, and when you remove them, everything falls apart."
This process is already happening, through means both natural and unnatural. Prairie dogs are susceptible to sylvatic plague — one reason that they're viewed by some as dangerous pests. But Sterling Krank says the perceived risk to individuals who live near colonies is vastly overstated. "People think they carry plague, but they can't, because sylvatic plague kills within 24 hours — so they're actually victims of it. An active prairie dog colony is typically a healthy prairie dog colony, and putting out insecticide to kill the fleas that carry plague can be a great safety tool.
"There's research showing that coyotes kill more domestic animals in areas where prairie dog colonies have been removed," she adds. "They move more into human-occupied spaces to fulfill their diets, which is another great reason for keeping prairie dogs."
Sterling Krank recognizes there are times that prairie dog colonies may have to be relocated — particularly in a place like Boulder, where development is booming. But if it's not done properly, the animals will die as surely as if they were snuffed out at their previous home.
She explains that "wild-to-wild relocation is actually picking up the colony and putting it into another prairie dog colony, not sucking them up in a vacuum and taking them somewhere else, where they die or become raptor or ferret food. That's euthanasia, although I think it's okay to just say 'killing.'"
To do things right, she continues, "you have to walk up to a prairie dog colony and say, 'I've got family A and family B and family C' — although the families are actually called coteries. Then you set traps for family A — the same number of traps as for prairie dogs — and then you do the same for B and C. Then you go to your relief site and find the exact number of burrows that A and B and C need and that are adjacent to each other in that order. Then you trap and transfer and release them into those same burrows, which have to meet suitable criteria and be a suitable habitat. And if you don't have an abandoned colony, you can get a mini-backhoe and create artificial burrows. You have to dig four feet in, with a pipe that comes out and then goes back into the ground and fill it all in — and that's one coterie. Then you do the same for B and C and so on, in a very strategic way."
Here's a Humane Society video showing a colony restoration in action.
It's not cheap to move a colony the right way, which is why the prairie dog tool kit promotes the use of so-called mitigation banks, which can be used by local communities to collect funds earmarked for prairie dog conservation, as well as requiring that developers purchase "conservation credits" that would go toward such an effort.
"It's a good solution for developers," Sterling Krank believes. "I find that developers often want to do the right thing by prairie dogs. Some will even set aside a portion of their land for the prairie dogs to reduce the impact they're going to have. But there are a lot of other scenarios communities can think about in advance to make non-lethal management decisions. That way, they can prevent a lot of conflicts from occurring in the first place."
The City of Boulder's Matheson isn't regularly inundated with prairie dog-related gripes. "I would say there's one land owner in the urban service area I talk to fairly regularly who's looking for a relocation site for prairie dogs and hasn't been able to secure one," she says. "Other options haven't worked when it comes to mitigating them on their property."
But agricultural lands and open-space properties have prairie dog issues of their own, she goes on, "and as a city, we do relocations on our own property, where we construct the infrastructure to support that. Prairie dog protection and conservation is a really important part of our management plans, both in natural areas and the urban service area. That's one of the points we've made in developing our plan — to identify conservation opportunities even in the urban-service areas, because prairie dogs are absolutely an essential component of the prairie ecosystem."
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This approach reflects the viewpoint of many in Boulder, a place well known for attracting citizens with an ecological bent. "That's reflected in the communication I have with city residents," Matheson confirms. "It's usually more about asking where they can observe prairie dogs in the urban area and that type of interaction."
Should Boulder authorize lethal control rather than simply agreeing to study it, negative reactions from such folks could have political consequences, especially in light of a general decline in the prairie dog population; one estimate cited by Sterling Krank suggests that their numbers are down by as much as 98 percent in and around the city. She hopes the tool kit will help prevent that figure from dipping even further.
"We don't support lethal prairie dog management, but I respect land and wildlife managers," she maintains. "That's why we want to share this information. We want to be a part of the solution and not the problem."