Shared from the 2/20/2017 The Denver Post eEdition


Towns fill double the Colorado acreage researchers once thought


Colorado Parks and Wildlife recently completed a survey of black-tailed prairie dog habitat and populations in Colorado, and the findings proved positive for the prairie dwellers. Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post


A recent survey by Colorado Parks and Wildlife found that black-tailed prairie dogs occupy more than 500,000 acres on the Eastern Plains. Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Prairie dogs — the long-reviled rodents that pester developers and ranchers yet play a key role for Great Plains ecosystems — not only are surviving but may be far more abundant in Colorado than previously believed.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists just completed a survey that found prairie dog towns scattered across more than 500,000 acres. That’s twice as much habitat as expected, agency officials said last week. It means the eastern Colorado prairie is well set to sustain black-footed ferrets — the nation’s most endangered animal — along with mountain plovers, ferruginous hawks, owls, swift foxes and more than 100 other species that eat prairie dogs or share their habitat.

The federally backed survey was based on analysis of photos combined with two fresh aerial inspections and ground investigation. Colorado officials say the results show that the black-tailed prairie dog need not receive federal endangered species protection, which could lead to land-use restrictions on prairie spanning 11 states.

But recurring conflicts over prairie dogs, still targeted for extermination around expanding Front Range cities, reflect a continuing struggle for coexistence with wildlife. Colorado remains especially difficult; a nearly 20-year-old law has imposed government control over relocation of prairie dogs across county lines, limiting what species managers can do.

Prairie dog advocates who repeatedly petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection contend prairie dog numbers are still far too low. Defenders of Wildlife and other groups are trying to enlist private landowners and public land managers to build up radically bigger prairie dog colonies.

All sides agree that the fate of prairie dogs increasingly depends on an experimental, grape-sized red pellet now being tested to inoculate them against plague.

“We’re very excited by the survey numbers. The survey shows we have enough prairie dogs,” CPW species conservation coordinator Tina Jackson said.

“A listing of a species like this would have a huge impact on landowners. It could restrict activities on their property,” she said. “Prairie dogs are really important. If we didn’t have adequate areas for prairie dogs, you could see cascading ecological effects.”

A century ago, black-tailed prairie dogs numbered in the hundreds of millions and were possibly the most abundant mammal in North America. Colorado officials reckon prairie dogs inhabited 7 million acres in the state — an area 14 times larger than prairie dog habitat today. But plague, urban development, poisoning, roads and hunting here and across the Great Plains reduced prairie dogs by 95 percent. Federal biologists estimate 10 million to 20 million have survived.

Eating grasses, roots, seeds and flowering plants, prairie dogs are considered a keystone species essential for other species to thrive. They serve as a food source for coyotes, badgers, foxes and the critically endangered black-footed ferret. Ferrets, tiger salamanders, burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks also rely on prairie dog burrows for cover. Prairie dogs also aerate and fertilize soil, helping prairie plants thrive.

“It’s difficult for people to comprehend that prairie dogs could be in trouble when you can drive outside Denver or Boulder and see large prairie dog colonies. But these represent maybe 2 percent of what once covered the Great Plains,” said Jonathan Proctor, director of the seven-state Rockies and Plains Program for Defenders of Wildlife, a species and ecosystem advocacy group.

“Because of the massive loss of prairie dogs, we also nearly lost black-footed ferrets. We’ll never restore black-footed ferrets and get them delisted unless we restore large colonies of prairie dogs,” he said. “Many species depending on prairie dogs are in severe trouble today because of a lack of healthy prairie dog colonies.”

No groups currently are petitioning for endangered species protection. U.S. Fish and Wildlife authorities conducted reviews and decided protection was not warranted.

Yet Colorado’s law prohibiting movement of prairie dogs from one county to another without a state permit puts government in the way when developers and prairie dog rescue groups clash. Developers and land managers ought to be able to cooperate more easily in relocating prairie dogs to boost prairie ecosystems, Proctor said.

“We’re trying to work with landowners and public land managers to restore at least a few large complexes of prairie dogs. Most people understand the value of wildlife,” Proctor said. “There are willing landowners who want to help solve problems.”

CPW crews with federal support are testing the latest prairie dog vaccine pellets at several locations, including Fort Collins’ Soapstone Prairie, north of Wellington. In Montana, federal agencies have deployed drones for efficient distribution of the pellets.

Federal agencies still haven’t approved the plague vaccinations for wide use.

Meanwhile, other Great Plains states are conducting surveys. The method CPW used, costing $200,000 overall, has been used in Wyoming and Oklahoma to size up current populations, CPW’s Jackson said.

“If you want to protect the prairies,” she said, “then you’ve got to protect prairie dogs.”

Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700, or @finleybruce

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