We humans caused the wildlife crisis
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We humans caused the wildlife crisis - Yet we have the gall to blame them for the mess
By David Crawford

April 16, 2006

All clear! That's one meaning of the prairie dog jump-yip. Who doesn't feel a lift of the spirit when seeing the prairie dogs' version of "The Wave"?

If it were only possible to signal all clear, once and for all, to the black-tailed prairie dogs who continue to endure vitriol and assault from our species. Somehow we are not content to have reduced their acreage to 1 percent of its historical size.

The fact of the matter is that we have taken nearly all prairie-dog habitat and converted it to our own purposes. Without foresight, we isolated their colonies and fragmented their complexes (i.e., groups of colonies). We severely restricted the very movement that characterizes this species. And we did a grave disservice to prairie wildlife in general. When was the last time you saw a family of burrowing owls on the rim of a prairie dog burrow?

Having created a wildlife-management problem, shall we continue to kill the victims of our bungling and shortsightedness? Or shall we roll up our sleeves and work together toward a humane solution?

On March 7, community members packed the City Council chambers in support of this statement:

We ask the Boulder City Council to maintain the city's position as a leader in humane wildlife management. We oppose the lethal control of wildlife in Boulder, and we call for city funding in support of innovative and humane approaches to wildlife conflicts.

The statement also was endorsed by 56 Boulder businesses and 16 nonprofits.

We know Boulder tends to go the extra mile on this issue. And, well, we have a few miles yet to go.

In the simplest terms, we need to figure out:

How to keep prairie dogs on lands designated for them and off other lands.

What to do with prairie dogs and other animals who live on lands where they are not wanted.

How to maintain relatively healthy prairie dog colonies.

The good news is that there is a wealth of science and experience upon which to base our efforts.

Keeping Prairie Dogs Where We Want Them

Barrier technology continues to improve. Well-maintained barriers, coupled with translocation of "trespassers," can be effective in managing prairie dogs. Costs are substantial but can be kept down by using volunteers to erect barriers, monitor sites, and assist with translocations. Securing release sites for translocation also can be expensive.

The community will benefit from a discussion on population management.

Contrary to popular perceptions, prairie dogs reproduce at relatively low rates. According to John Hoogland, Ph.D., in his 2006 book "Conservation of the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog," female prairie dogs are sexually receptive for several hours on only one day of each year. Females who survive their perilous first year live an average of four to five years.

Each year, about half of a stable colony's mature females successfully wean a litter. When juveniles first emerge from their burrows, the most common litter size is three.

Still, some research into population management has occurred. In a study on surgical sterilization in a large and stable colony, Hoogland showed that females in coteries with sterilized males mate with fertile males from other coteries. It is unclear what effect sterilization would have in an isolated colony in the urban/suburban environment. Additional research may be necessary, as is a discussion of the ethics of human-introduced population control.

Removing Prairie Dogs from Where We Don't Want Them

First things first. Just because a group of neighbors decries the presence of a prairie dog colony doesn't mean that colony should go away. Why, some community members still assert that killing prairie dogs helps control plague! Open dialogue and continuing education are necessary components of any management approach.

That said, most prairie-wildlife advocates will agree with the need to keep prairie dogs from burrowing onto established playing fields. (The relentless conversion of prairie habitat to new playing fields is another matter entirely.)

Translocations of prairie dogs have been occurring for decades.

Improvements in methodologies continue to yield increased success rates.

Still, securing release sites can be expensive. If we want to translocate prairie dogs rather than kill them, we must put our heads and our pocketbooks together.

Once prairie dogs are removed, the land must be made undesirable or unreachable, or prairie dogs likely will repopulate it.

Healthy Prairie Dog Colonies

Barring catastrophic events, Front Range communities will for the foreseeable future host prairie dog colonies in the urban/suburban environment.

Most of us learned long ago that we must sleep in the beds we make. Which is to say: We are responsible for having placed prairie dogs and other prairie wildlife in a difficult spot.

It is indeed a poor lesson to our children when we kill such victims, let alone blame them!

We do not dispute that there are problems to address. But the person who decries a "moonscape" must be prepared to examine the history of the land.

Many such problems are, for instance, the product of years of overgrazing.

And the person who blames prairie dogs for being on playing fields simply is not playing fair.


David Crawford is executive director of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, which welcomes continued dialogue on human conflicts with native wildlife. Phone: (303) 449-4422.

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