Boulder is poised to explore a controversial tactic for managing exploding prairie dog populations that it has long eschewed — the use of lethal control — after a night of passionate pleas and anguished discussion before the Open Space and Mountain Parks Board of Trustees.
Late Tuesday night, trustees passed a series of motions to answer what they termed a "crisis," including one that opened the door to potential use of lethal measures to manage the animals' exploding growth on some properties.
Those actions came as the city's Prairie Dog Working Group Phase II recommendations were considered by the trustees, who will give direction to the Boulder City Council at its meeting to address the subject, currently set for May 7.
"We have a crisis situation and it's going to take aggressive action," said Curt Brown, vice chair of the board.
He termed the situation, which sees some irrigated grasslands at the north end of the city system leased to area ranchers with about 50% occupation by prairie dogs, the biggest problem the OSMP department has faced in recent times, second only to the 2013 flood.
Board member Karen Hollweg agreed, saying, "I think we're now in an emergency situation."
Several members of the public spoke in favor of lethal control to limit the spread of sizable prairie dog colonies in Boulder's grassland areas to the north of the city. Many speakers focused on Boulder Valley Ranch, where many people board their horses and land is also leased for ranching.
Boulder resident Raymond Bridge, speaking for the Boulder County Audubon Society, called the situation "out of control."
"If this is not remedied soon, we will lose the topsoil and we will drive the (agricultural) lessees to Nebraska," Bridge said.
In areas where prairie dogs are present on as much as 50% of leased agricultural land, "lethal control will be required, and management of the overpopulation of the prairie dogs should be delegated to the lessees, as they see fit," he said.
Marianne Martin, a Boulder resident who has boarded a horse at Boulder Valley Ranch for seven years, said that during the time she has done so, "I have watched the fields just disintegrate."
The toll that prairie dogs take on vegetation on the land, she said, is tremendous, with the animals devouring vegetation right down to, and including the roots.
"We think nothing of killing rats," she said. "Nobody likes to control and kill the animals but we love our grasslands. We love our open space. We've got to do something, because it's getting really, really, really bad."
Elle Cushman, whose family runs the Cushman Cattle Co., on land leased from Boulder, said, "It's time somebody made a decision ... It is make or break time."
Boulder Urban Wildlife Conservation Coordinator Val Matheson outlined to the trustees that the current policy on issuing a lethal control permit, set by Boulder's wildlife protection ordinance of 2005, requires the applicant to go through a six-step process, which essentially demands that all other possibilities for nonlethal solutions have first been pursued, before fumigants — carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide, depending on the methodology being employed — can be used.
Trustees gave those seeking relief hope by endorsing a recommendation, advanced by board chairman Tom Isaacson, to start a process that would lead toward the use of lethal control.
Isaacson's proposal, passed unanimously, was to send a statement on to city council stating, "Prairie dog levels on numerous OSMP irrigated agricultural properties have created a conflict between the city's prairie dog and agricultural policies, and prevent OSMP from fully meeting charter purposes. It is infeasible to address these problems only by nonlethal means in a timely fashion.
"Accordingly, we recommend commencing an expedited OSMP-led process, with appropriate outreach, to evaluate whether, where, and how to use lethal control to address these problems."
Additionally, Brown advanced a motion, also passed unanimously, that due to the "crisis" of prairie dogs overrunning some agricultural properties, the open space department make a budget request for an additional full-time staff person to be devoted to the issues.
OSMP manages more than 25,000 acres of grassland, agricultural property and associated habitats. Up to 6,775 of those acres have had prairie dogs on them.
The full acreage of irrigable properties on OSMP land is 6,641 acres.
On these properties, prairie dog colonies overlap with about 1,052 acres of the irrigable land, meaning that in 2018, about 16% of the irrigable agricultural land was impacted by conflicts with prairie dogs.
"However," the city staff memo to the trustees said, "distribution of the prairie dogs is not uniform, and two tenants in the northern part of the OSMP system have prairie dog colonies on nearly 50 percent of their leased, irrigated lands."
A memo prepared for Wednesday's meeting stated that 36 properties that comprise those 1,052 acres on the northern end of the city's system represent the highest priority areas of conflict with agricultural interests, but that relocation of prairie dogs from that area in the next three to four years is only feasible for about 10% — or, 1,280 to 1,920 — of the prairie dogs living there.
That would leave about 14,000 to 20,000 more prairie dogs that it would cost $4.8 million to $7.3 million and take 20 to 30 years to move.
The Prairie Dog Working Group was formed at city council's direction in 2016, and already saw the first phase of its recommendations incorporated into city policy in mid-2017. Those included criteria for deciding where to move prairie dogs to and from, along with best practices for creating suitable habitat and preventing plague in prairie dog colonies.
The second phase of the working group's work was geared toward creating a long-term vision for management, to promote prairie dog populations that are healthy and sustainable, managed through natural predation, and also to limit the impacts on nearby farmers.
Boulder resident Elizabeth Black, one of roughly a dozen people who spoke out Wednesday night asking for tougher measures to be employed against the prairie dogs in some targeted locations, sent the board an email Thursday morning expressing gratitude for taking a difficult step.
"Thank you so much for your courageous step last night, and all your hard work at the meeting, drafting language to recommend to Council that we need to start the process to use lethal control on the City's irrigated agricultural lands," she wrote.
"While this is just the first baby step in what I anticipate will be a long and painful process, it is nevertheless a huge courageous step out of the business-as-usual path that the City has been on for far too long."
The city currently allocates 2.57 full-time equivalent positions, and between $27,000 and $300,000 annually toward prairie dog management. Initial estimates of the Prairie Dog Working Group's recommendations are that they would require an additional 4.7 to 10 full time equivalents, and between $788,000 and $5.45 million, "depending on the level of effort committed to the project," according to the staff memo to trustees.
Due to the limitations of current staff and financial resources, city staff recommended that certain initiatives be reduced in scale or deferred past 2022, such as reintroduction of the black-footed ferret, a natural predator of the prairie dog.
The trustees also passed a motion Wednesday night advocating implementation in stages of the second-phase recommendations of the Prairie Dog Working Group, modifying the scale and timing of some of some of the measures, as staff had suggested.