December 14, 2016
Prairie Dog Coalition saves more than 1,500 prairie dogs this year from being buried alive
Helen Taylor felt sick the moment she noticed a new development sign go up in the middle of a prairie dog colony she’d been driving by for some 20 years near her Fort Collins, Colorado home.
She knew what it meant. One day the prairie dogs would be eating grass and sunning themselves atop their burrows. The next day their little lookout mounds would be destroyed by heavy construction equipment, man-made structures would go up and hardly anyone would remember the animals in a year. “I didn’t know anything about prairie dogs,” says Taylor, “except that they’re adorable and I didn’t want them killed.”
Prairie dog colonies face unique challenges in growing cities like Fort Collins. As land is developed, the animals are forced into small pockets that are often bordered by busy roads, businesses and houses. Eventually, the remaining land pockets come up for development or people just want the prairie dogs gone. The species faces many other challenges, including human persecution and sylvatic plague from fleas, both having already wiped out millions upon millions of prairie dogs across the western U.S.
Taylor wanted to help, so she wrote the developer, Stan Scott, to ask if he planned to move the prairie dogs. Scott wrote back, saying he would consider it.
Taylor then contacted the HSUS Prairie Dog Coalition, which provides action packets for people who want to save prairie dogs in their communities. One of the first steps, the packet instructed, was to find land for the prairie dogs. Most local governments don’t set aside land for displaced prairie dogs, which are still listed as pests in many jurisdictions and typically poisoned in lieu of relocating them.
But growing awareness about the plight of prairie dogs and their invaluable role in western grassland ecosystems is inspiring more and more advocacy and conservation efforts from citizens such as Taylor and groups like the Prairie Dog Coalition, which in 2016 relocated more than 1,500 imperiled prairie dogs.
“They’re so important in the prairie ecosystem that nine species depend on prairie dogs directly for food and habitat,” says Noelle Guernsey, program manager for the PDC. “They’re also ecosystem engineers. They stir up the soil, which releases nutrients and keeps the prairie healthy.”
Grazing animals such as pronghorn deer and even cattle have been shown to preferentially graze the nutritious new grass shoots throughout prairie dog colonies.
The last two summers, the PDC has helped to move more than 200 prairie dogs from land owned by the Colorado Horse Rescue in Longmont, Colorado, after Boulder County directed them to conduct a revegetation project on their land. The prairie dogs were relocated to protected land where the county plans to reintroduce black-footed ferrets. The county offered the land and paid for the prairie dog relocation because it required the revegetation project.
And in June, the PDC moved nearly 500 prairie dogs from a Bureau of Land Management helium plant in Kansas. The BLM said the prairie dogs were digging into the pipeline and proposed poisoning them. “I wrote a letter saying there are alternatives,” says PDC director Lindsey Sterling Krank.
The imperiled colony was moved to land reminiscent of their historic range, with bison, pronghorn and burrowing owls. During the month-long relocation, brushfires broke out across the 42,000-acre conservation property and everyone witnessed yet another value of prairie dogs as bison ran to their colonies for safety. The lower vegetation, it turns out, acts as firebreak.
Back in Fort Collins, a local newspaper reporter read Taylor’s exchange with the city council and wrote a story, garnering interest from nearly a dozen concerned citizens. The Fort Collins Prairie Dog Relocation Group, as they called themselves, began meeting once a week. They started a Facebook page to educate people and sought help from the PDC, which gave Taylor hours of advice over the phone and help with proposals and presentations to city officials.
The city turned down three of Taylor’s proposals, but eventually she and her fellow advocates prevailed. “We had a compelling case with the help of the PDC, and we didn’t give up,” she says.
The original prairie dogs and one additional colony on a kitty-corner property were moved to a 65-acre, state-owned natural area over the spring and summer. Unfortunately, Capstone—a developer on a third property at the same busy intersection— poisoned its prairie dogs.
Phase one began with the removal of more than 400 prairie dogs from the Stan Scott property. The other property owner, New Belgium Brewery, had been holding off on development for two years because it didn’t want prairie dogs killed. Their 17-acre colony was successfully moved in the fall.
The relocations began by mapping prairie dog colonies so family units (called coteries) stayed together. Rescuers built dozens of nest boxes for the receiving site, filled them with cut grass and placed them 4 feet underground in trenches they’d dug out and backfilled. “The nest boxes provide prairie dogs with protection until they dig their own burrows,” Guernsey says.
Two corrugated drain pipes were connected to either side of the nest box. One led to an above-ground acclimation enclosure where the team stocked carrots, lettuce, apples and grain as temporary food.
Before moving day back at the original site, the team laid traps around burrow entrances, set them in the locked-open position and sprinkled grain trails leading inside to get the prairie dogs comfortable with the new contraptions. A couple of days before trapping, they withheld grain to heighten the animals’ appetite for the special treat.
Trapping days began before sunrise. In the dark, the team poured small handfuls of grain in the back of the traps before setting them. Later, they picked up trapped prairie dogs, covering them with sheets to minimize stress, and released inadvertently trapped bunnies, who also love the grain.
On the receiving site, they transferred the prairie dogs to the acclimation cages, where without even a backward glance the animals promptly scrambled down the corrugated drainpipe to the nest box below.
In all, the PDC helped save more than 720 prairie dogs in Fort Collins. “Some people may question the conservation value of a few hundred prairie dogs” says Taylor, who helped with the relocation. “But so often what gets lost in the conversation is the inherent value of an animal life. … I feel great about saving those animals. It’s the sort of thing I would want in my obituary.”