The symphony of earnest prairie dog barking used to provide the soundtrack for over 100 million acres across the United States. The music was largely silenced by the early 1900s however, as aggressive poisoning campaigns and the accidental introduction of the Sylvatic plague decimated prairie dog populations and eliminated the from up to 99% of their historic range. The animals still face overwhelming adversity today, including continued poisoning, recreational shooting (often unregulated), and habitat loss.
Colorado classifies the prairie dog as an agricultural pest, but this status belies the animal’s importance to the prairie ecosystem. In fact, many ecologists consider the prairie dog to be a keystone species. Not only do prairie dogs help aerate the prairie soil and greatly affect the vegetation surrounding their burrows, but their colonies provide habitat and hunting ground for nearly 200 other species.
Prairie dog range in Colorado has shrunk from as many as 7 million acres to around 800,000. Because the prairie dog is such an important building block to the American grasslands, Colorado Prairie Initiative aims to facilitate its recovery and expansion to areas where it is biologically, economically, and socially appropriate. Fortunately, the state of Colorado has a program in place that allows private groups and landowners to cooperate to achieve this exact goal.
Relocation – Willing landowners can accept prairie dogs for relocation. Relocated animals may have been displaced by development or simply overpopulated their original habitat.
Relocation sites must be approved by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, and private landowners must pay for the animals to be trapped and transported. Live trapping is more expensive than extermination, and the extra cost usually means prairie dog colonies get fumigated, drowned, or otherwise killed off instead. Since the animals will need to be removed regardless, Colorado Prairie Initiative has created a program that pays the difference between the originally planned extermination and the more expensive live trapping and relocation.
Donation – Although relocation will allow prairie dogs to expand back into parts of their original habitat, the reality is that there will not always be land upon which to relocate the animals. Development in some places outpaces the rate at which suitable relocation sites can be found, and local politics do not always make relocated prairie dogs welcome in parts of Colorado.
These situations still offer chances for prairie restoration efforts, however. Prairie dogs are a natural prey for many predators, and the animals can be utilized by wildlife centers throughout Colorado, such as raptor rehabilitation centers and the two black-footed ferret breeding facilities. However, to ensure safe prey for the rehabilitating predators, these centers require the prairie dogs to be killed in a very specific and humane manner, which is often costly and prohibitive.
Traditional methods of prairie dog extermination include fumigating a burrow, poisoning, or pumping water into the burrows to drown the animals. These methods make prairie dogs unsafe for consumption by other animals and leave them to go to waste in the ground. Colorado Prairie Initiative has established a program through which the group covers the cost difference between an originally scheduled extermination or poisoning and trapping that benefits these prairie animal rehabilitation groups. In his way, prairie dogs can contribute to the restoration of the Colorado grasslands.