Farmers, naturalists, bio ethicists and planners confront the prairie dog issue.
On a cool and breezy October afternoon, Eric Skokan kneels down to pluck a bouquet of sun-kissed yellow broccoli flowers from his farm in northeastern Boulder County. The delicate blooms bursting with sweetness are one of many novel edibles the chef-turned-farmer cultivates on public lands and serves to foodies at his Boulder restaurants.
Skokan is living a dream propelled by farm-to-table enthusiasts and a local farmer-training program. But after six years, he’s quickly learned that his craft is continually humbled by furry forces of nature—prairie dogs.
“All it takes is a little extra discipline on our part,” says Skokan, who keeps prairie dogs out of his row crops by plowing a buffer. But when it comes to pasture for his sheep, the grass-eating rodents expanding across Highway 52 have to go.
“Farmers like us end up on the front lines of this balancing act,” he says. “The prism I view this through is that it’s not right for me to kill off all the prairie dogs.”
Skokan’s choices represent a shift toward compromise, and the change is most apparent in Boulder County’s recent efforts to redefine its stance on prairie dogs. The most significant change, advocates say, happened Oct. 16, when the county commissioners approved a plan permitting prairie dogs to scurry and burrow on at least 5,000 acres of designated public land. It’s a goal that’s likely to be met soon, officials say, without specifying when.
In Thornton, Broomfield and other fast-spreading Front Range cities, one does not hear talk of prairie-dog preserves; the animals are simply being pushed out. Boulder County is different. It has the luxury of planning uses for open space—nearly 100,000 acres varying from prairie grasslands and cattle pastures to rocky, mountainous regions.
But having a wealth of tax-supported lands doesn’t stop the impassioned debate. Wildlife enthusiasts hope to persuade lawmakers with predator studies that show a clear need for prairie dogs. They warn that if government doesn't go further with a sense of urgency, Boulder County residents will forever lose the nature experiences they prize so highly.
“Even if you don’t love prairie dogs, you love species attached to them,” says Lindsey Sterling Krank, director of the Boulder-based Prairie Dog Coalition. “To me, a healthy balance means that we are seeing owls and hawks coming back every year.”
Animal advocates say it’s time ecosystems received as much investment as agricultural and recreational needs—a package designed to stem neighboring urban sprawl. They point to the complex social lives of prairie dogs as a compelling reason to stack the deck in the animals’ favor. And they aren't happy that the county’s new plan—elaborately called the Prairie Dog Habitat Element of the Grassland and Shrubland Management Policy—shifts away from relocation and toward lethal control without public input.
Meanwhile, bioethicists question the ease with which humans accept lethal solutions, no matter how adorable or repugnant the species.
Colorado’s Department of Agriculture defines prairie dogs as “rodent pests.” As one state official puts it, “You can pretty much do anything you want to them.” A single pet rat has better protections than 100 acres of prairie dogs. Google “prairie dog hunt” and you’ll find people who call it “fun” to blow these animals to bits. On a rural property in northern Boulder County, one homeowner explained that the loaded shotgun propped next to a second-story window was for sniping prairie dogs.
There’s zero tolerance for prairie dogs on the nearly 20,000 acres of county-owned farm and ranchlands. A recent change in the prairie dog management plan, which falls under Boulder County’s Parks and Open Space Department, puts lethal control in the hands of tenants, who are not required to give public notice.
“They just aren't protected at all out there on farms,” Sterling Krank laments. She says it’s important to note that county workers will also use lethal measures to manage those 5,000 acres of prairie dog–designated lands—an increase from today’s 3,350 acres, called Habitat Conservation Areas, or HCAs.
“Specifically, if there’s a conflict between farming and prairie dogs in Boulder County, most people do come down on the side of preserving farming,” outgoing Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor says.
Agricultural lands are profitable: Last year, leases brought in about $1.5 million, says county resource planner Jesse Rounds. That money “was put right back into the agricultural program, repairing fences and sprinklers.” Restoring grasslands, conversely, is expensive and slow.
“It’s true that if the county was simultaneously looking at purchasing both prairie dog habitat and farmland, both [interests] would be competing for the same dollars,” Rounds adds. Between 2009 and 2011, the county acquired 15 acres of suitable prairie dog habitat, compared to 961 acres where the animals are forbidden.
So does agriculture have greater value? “No,” Toor says. “We have to reach an appropriate balance as we acquire land. How we plan depends on how the land has been used historically.”
Eric Skokan tolerates prairie dogs near his row crops, but not in his sheep pasture, where they would compete for grass. He says Boulder County farmers are on the front lines of the prairie dog balancing act: to kill or not to kill.
In Colorado, many native species depend directly on the black-tailed prairie dog for survival, says Steve Jones, president of Boulder County Audubon Society. They include the black-footed ferret and mountain plover (both now wiped out in Boulder County), and the ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, burrowing owl, horned lark, swift fox and American badger. Many are rarely if ever seen locally anymore, and some are on a sharp decline, Jones says, pointing to 30 years of raptor studies by the Boulder County Nature Association and Audubon’s monthly wildlife inventories. Loss of prairie dog colonies goes hand in hand with loss of ferruginous hawks, the largest hawk in North America.
“That’s really significant,” Jones says. “We’ll need large-scale colonies to get hawks back here wintering, otherwise they’ll go someplace else. We’d hate to lose them.”
The northern harrier “is on the brink,” with a mere four nests spotted in the last 12 years, and badgers—another predator once routinely reported—haven’t been reported in the past 10 years.
“We’re really in a crisis,” Jones says. “The county’s response has been ‘not now,’ so when? We’re about to lose a whole ecosystem.”
In the revised plan, commissioners included the potential goal of acquiring habitat at both Dowe Flats and Rabbit Mountain, two areas north of Highway 66 that wildlife advocates say could be an ideal spot for contiguous prairie dog colonies. However, 1,500 of those acres remain part of a cement-mining operation that will require restoration and won’t be available for 10 to 15 years.
Jones says advocates are pushing for greater effort on Rock Creek Farm east of Boulder, where prairie dogs and burrowing owls, which are sharing their dens, compete mightily against a pumpkin farm. Even more valuable are the expansive grasslands extending south to Coal Creek Canyon—a potential recovery site for endangered black-footed ferrets, which “eat a lot of prairie dogs.”
The county has gotten seriously out of balance, Jones says. “We have lost predators that could successfully manage the prairie dogs instead of having people poison them.”
In the past 10 years, Boulder County has successfully relocated one group of prairie dogs, made several efforts to contain colonies with fencing, and done a lot of exterminating. The county spent $20,000 last year on poison-gas cartridges and $65,000 on its management crew, officials report.
Advocates argue that the rules for lethal control are inconsistent. Any future relocations will require extensive public review. “But the county can go into HCAs and kill without any notification,” Jones says. “That’s still a little one-sided. I think poisoning is more serious than moving.”
Bernard Rollin, a professor of philosophy and animal and bio medical sciences at Colorado State University, questions the need to kill. “I don’t think you should ever kill prairie dogs unless there’s some massive outbreak of disease affecting humans,” he says. The desire to kill wildlife is about competition, he theorizes, whether it’s sheep ranchers destroying wolves in Yellowstone or hay farmers poisoning prairie dogs in Boulder. The choice has to do with compassion, which can be either “blunted or nurtured” by society.
The county’s plan, which states that management should not cause “undue stress,” identifies carbon monoxide as the method that’s most efficient. Pain and suffering are indeed discussed at meetings, says Toor, “but it is only one factor.”
The prairie dog conflict is fundamentally about the best use of the land, Toor says, and within that scope, individual decisions have to be made. “Look, there are lots of fights over individual properties and prairie dogs, but the fact is that in the long run, we are going to have significant amounts of prairie dog habitat. We are going to have prairie dogs in perpetuity. That isn’t the case everywhere in Colorado.”
The city of Boulder’s online prairie dog page suggests prairie dogs have heightened awareness and are highly socialized creatures that “use physical contact, such as nuzzling and kissing as well as vocalizations to communicate.”
Prairie dogs are specialized builders, creating bedrooms, nurseries and latrines within their underground tunnels. Anecdotal, they’re said to collect their dead from the roadside and grieve.
Marc Bekoff, CU Boulder professor emeritus in evolutionary biology, says an animal cannot be “cashed out” in terms of high or low value. He calls that an unfortunate human construct put on animals. “What I like to ask people is, ‘Would you do to your dog what you are doing to other animals?’ and the answer, of course, is no. Prairie dogs are no less sentient or conscious than dogs.”
Humans have this strange need to separate and distance themselves from animals and be the dominant and controlling entity, he says; “it’s a very strong impulse.” But all mammals share the limbic system, the brain structure that supports feelings and emotional, expressive lives, Bekoff says. “The very fact you start talking about not causing stress means you know you are causing stress. When you go in and [indiscriminately] kill and break up families, non target animals die and suffer. The assault on prairie dogs has a lot of collateral damage.”
Communities need open, ethical discussions “without letting labels and myths color the picture of who animals are,” Bekoff says. “I say there is always a choice.”
Julie Hoffman Marshall is a proud native Coloradan, author of Making Burros Fly: Cleveland Amory, Animal Rights Pioneer, a former Daily Camera writer, and founder of Brainsong: Music for Children with Autism. She lives with her family in Lafayette.