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Prairie dogs’ damage to Boulder open space ag land decried at forum

City seeking ways to address animals' growing numbers

BOULDER, CO – OCTOBER 16:Prairie Dogs are seen near 55th Street and Monarch Road near Boulder on Oct. 16, 2019.(Photo by Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER, CO – OCTOBER 16:Prairie Dogs are seen near 55th Street and Monarch Road near Boulder on Oct. 16, 2019.(Photo by Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
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For farmers, ranchers and those who appreciate the city of Boulder’s open space, one creature has been threatening their livelihoods and destroying the natural beauty of the landscape: prairie dogs.

The four-legged, burrowing rodents were the topic of a Wednesday night community meeting hosted by Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. More than 100 people packed a room in the OSMP building, 2520 55th St., to share their frustrations and ideas for reaching a solution to control the number of prairie dogs. The meeting focused on a swath of irrigated open space agricultural land north of Jay Road, between U.S. 36 and the Diagonal Highway — 967 acres of which are inhabited by prairie dogs.

Some of the proposed solutions Wednesday included capturing the animals and relocating them to raptor recovery or black-footed ferret breeding programs, issuing contraceptives and killing them in their burrows with carbon dioxide canisters. The ideas are based on recommendations from the Open Space and Mountain Parks Board of Trustees and a director from Boulder City Council.

Many in the audience had personal stories about how the abundance of prairie dogs has destroyed their land and threatened their businesses.

Dwayne Cushman, a fifth-generation Boulder County farmer, who leases open space property from the city and county, said he has had to sell off roughly 30% of his cow herd, because prairie dogs have damaged grazing lands.

“Our income is down from not only the grazing, but the hay production — it is down 20% from what it was five years ago, just because of the prairie dogs,” Cushman said. “The prairie dogs ruin the grass. They eat it all and you can’t hay it anymore.”

Cushman said he doesn’t believe the problem will be fixed unless officials take action to curb the prairie dog population.

“They need to control the population of the prairie dogs,” Cushman said. “They are so far out of proportion now that they are devastating the land. … Whether it is lethal or whether you move (them), but the population has to be controlled.”

Andy Pelster, an agricultural stewardship supervisor with Open Space and Mountain Parks, said one of the organization’s major goals is keeping land viable for farmers and ranchers to lease. He emphasized that farmers and ranchers play a crucial role in helping to care for and maintain city open space.

Due to the prairie dog overpopulation, roughly 626 acres is not able to be leased. That is out of roughly 1,700 acres of currently unleased land, according to Lauren Kolb, a soil health coordinator with Open Space and Mountain Parks.

Among the talking points Wednesday were methods already employed to curb prairie dog populations and recommendations advised by the Prairie Dog Working Group, a group of City Council-appointed residents, who shared ideas with city leaders earlier this year.

Heather Swanson, Boulder’s ecological stewardship supervisor, said in 2019 that roughly $136,000 was spent on relocating prairie dogs, an effort that moved the animals from about 28 acres.

In addition to being costly, Swanson the relocation process is made further difficult by finding an appropriate place to relocate the animals that won’t cause repercussions for the environment or neighbors in the area.

Other measures have include creating barriers, essentially fence and mesh material that sometimes is buried to prevent prairie dogs from crossing into open space. This, however, is not always an effective deterrent and can also be costly. In 2019, Swanson said roughly $280,000 was spent on barriers.

Swanson emphasized that prairie dogs can provide many ecological benefits. The rodents’ digging can effectively increase the nutrient cycle.They also are a source of prey for raptors, badgers and rattlesnakes and their burrows provide homes for owls. However, the creatures proliferation has led to a decline in soil health, limiting Open Space and Mountain Parks’s ability to implement soil carbon farming and climate-mitigation practices.

Many in attendance expressed frustration that city and county policies for prairie dog management don’t align and that the environment is suffering as a consequence.

Sabrina Gerringer lives on property on Oxford Road, which she said is joint owned by the city and county.

“The city owns all this land and they don’t manage it as the county does and it’s causing rampant damage,” Gerringer said. “(The prairie dogs) are turning abundant grasslands, hay fields into moonscapes.”

Gerringer added that the plague used to help reduce the number of prairie dogs, but now they are treated, preventing them from dying off.

Shirley Schaller lives on 5 acres of farm property on 51st Street, north of Jay Road. Schaller said she spent $16,000 on fences to keep out prairie dogs. Schaller said she believes if the city begins irrigating swaths of land where prairie dogs roam, it could help to control their numbers, by helping to grow grasses that in turn attract the predators that like to snack on prairie dogs.

Public feedback will be used to help Open Space and Mountain Parks draft a management plan with a goal of presenting it to City Council early next year. People who could not attend the meeting can share feedback through Nov. 6 on the BeHeard Boulder page: beheardboulder.org/expedited-review.