Before loading cages of prairie dogs into the back of a truck, Lindsey Sterling Krank and Jenny Bryant shared a high-five.
Their work on Friday resulted in a new home for 15 prairie dogs living at the Nu West South site, irrigated agricultural land just southwest of the Boulder Reservoir that’s managed by Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. Double digits is cause for celebration in their world.
Sterling Krank and Bryant work with the Humane Society of the United States, the entity in charge of relocating prairie dogs from irrigated agricultural lands within the city.
The work began at the beginning of the year, a plan set in motion when Boulder City Council in September 2020 agreed to expand lethal and nonlethal prairie dog mitigation on land managed by Open Space and Mountain Parks north of Jay Road and west of the Diagonal.
Prairie dogs are a keystone species, on which many depend for survival — either using prairie dogs as a prey source or their burrows for shelter. However, the animals also are known for invading agricultural land, sometimes degrading soil health and rendering land unusable for farmers and ranchers. This dichotomy often creates tension in the community.
Because there were burrow protection ordinances preventing agricultural activity, last year’s decision happened through an expedited review process, said Victoria Poulton, a prairie dog conservation and management coordinator with Boulder OSMP.
According to earlier Camera reporting, the plan called for removing 900 to 1,200 prairie dogs each year by relocation and 3,000 to 6,000 prairie dogs each year by “in-burrow humane lethal control,” which uses carbon monoxide. It also called for installing barrier fences, starting soil restoration and allowing agricultural activities to resume that could damage burrows.
In terms of acreage, that equates to about 30 to 40 acres a year designated for relocation and 100 to 200 acres facing lethal control. The city considers a number of factors when determining what will happen on a particular piece of land.
“We select parcels on a case by case basis based on level of conflict,” Poulton said. “But we also account for any other wildlife concerns: if there are sensitive species in the area or raptor nests that may be depending on that colony for a prey source.”
The prairie dogs are relocated to the southern grasslands because the prairie dog population in that area is relatively low, largely because of the sylvatic plague, Poulton confirmed.
After the City Council approved the new mitigation plan, Boulder went through a bidding process, in which it selected the Humane Society of the U.S. to spearhead the relocation efforts, primarily because of their willingness to do it for a lower cost. The city contracts with HSUS for about $53,000 on a project that would typically cost more than $100,000, Poulton said.
That’s because the Humane Society can use grants and donations to cover the cost, Sterling Krank noted. They’re hoping doing so will allow the city to use non-lethal control on additional prairie dog colonies.
“Our response to this has been to partner with the city and see if we can maximize the non-lethal management by providing additional resources and doing the relocation at a discounted rate and training more people to do translocations in the nonprofit and professional field,” Sterling Krank said.
The work includes setting traps across the irrigated agricultural land where prairie dogs live. The animals are enticed in with food and are not injured when the trap closes. The team later collects the traps, covers them with blankets and moves the prairie dogs to their new home. Because the collection happened as the sun was setting on Friday, Sterling Krank kept the prairie dogs overnight and released them over the weekend.
Friday marked the winding down of the initial year’s work for Sterling Krank and her team. The latest effort saved more than 500 prairie dogs.
“It’s very, very rewarding,” Bryant, a lead field technician, said.
As program director for prairie dog conflict resolution with the Humane Society, Sterling Krank said this emphasizes her push to train new people to do the work.
“We’re training these individuals here with the hopes that next year we can do more coexistence clinics and use our relocation project as a place where we can show what quality translocation looks like — having a minimal impact on the land and maximizing the benefit for the prairie dogs,” she said.