As of March 5, 2012, Frederick, Colorado, a small town of 9,000 people, is requiring private property owners remove prairie dogs from their land. Any property owners who fail to comply within 30 days of the official notice could face $1,000 in fines. The ordinance is modeled on one passed in 2009 in the neighboring town of Firestone. “The prairie-dog issue is about as common in Colorado as snowstorms,” Firestone Mayor Chad Auer said. “It’s got to be dealt with all the time.”
Extermination company Rocky Mountain Wildlife Services will poison two of the town’s largest prairie-dog colonies, a service that will cost taxpayers $20,000. Public Works director Tony Huerta believes hiring the exterminator was necessary.
“We’re looking at eradication,” Huerta said. “It’d be nice to say we’re going to relocate them, but then you have to find someone who wants to receive them. This is also very difficult.” As part of the Frederick contract, if prairie dogs reappear on the town-owned land within two weeks of the extermination, Rocky Mountain Wildlife Service will treat the area again at 60 cents per burrow. “This is a new approach for us,” Huerta added. “But I feel pretty confident.”
According to the ordinance, disease transmission is a key reason the chipmunk-like, highly social and communicative species are being poisoned. “The concentration of prairie dog colonies in certain areas of [Frederick] leads to concerns by nearby property owners. The rodents migrate to other properties and become a nuisance. They dig burrows and cause significant damage to pasturage or lawns. Concentrated populations of prairie dogs are known to be subject to outbreaks of bubonic plague, a significant public health concern. Owners of large undeveloped areas with prairie dog colonies that are located adjacent to developed land should be required to control the prairie dogs.”
However, thanks to improved sanitation practices, pesticides and antibiotics, incidences of plague in the U.S. are relatively uncommon. Also, the plague most often quickly wipes out entire prairie dog colonies before it is able to reach human populations, and direct contact between humans and prairie dogs is rare. “Contracting the plague is very unlikely even if a person is walking through or living near a prairie dog colony,” said Eric Stone, wildlife biologist for the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.
Activist groups like the Prairie Dog Coalition are fighting for humane alternatives to effectively control the prairie dogs, such as habitat modification and natural repellents. They argue that since disease transmission occurs through fleas, insecticides could be an alternative to killing prairie dog colonies, adding that prairie dogs reproduce only once per year with an average litter size of three to four pups and the vegetation, grasses and soil on prairie dog colonies are higher in nutritional quality. Furthermore, hawks, owls, foxes, rabbits, ferrets and other forms of wildlife depend on prairie dogs for food or their burrows for shelter. “Nine different wildlife species depend on the prairie dog and their habitat for their survival,” Dr. Jane Goodall, a member of the Prairie Dog Coalition, said. “The prairie dog is a critical component to healthy North American grasslands.”
Ranchers despise prairie dogs because they chew down the vegetation their cattle need in order to eliminate predator hiding spots. “We asked, ´If you get rid of prairie dogs, how much forage do you gain?’ The answer was about four to seven percent,” said U.S. Forest Service biologist Dan Uresk. “It does impact the rancher in dollars and cents.” But the costs of poisoning prairie dogs outweigh the gains made by eliminating the animals. Because the government pays, however, “Ranchers think, ´Why not poison them if it’s free?'” he added.
Though prairie dog populations have dropped 98% over the past century, Colorado and other western states will continue to enforce poisonings, a method that takes 72 hours to effectively kill the creatures. Last Thursday, the Senate approved bill LB473, which will mandate private landowners in Nebraska to “prevent the expansion” of black-tailed prairie dog colonies. The “Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Management Act,” introduced by rancher and Nebraska Senator Leroy Louden, forces property owners to exterminate black-tailed prairie dog colonies. “If services for the management of black-tailed prairie dogs are not available within the sixty-day period specified in this notice, you may satisfy this notice by providing evidence that you have arranged for management to occur when available,” the bill states. “If such notice and evidence are not received by the county board within sixty days after the date specified at the bottom of this notice you may, upon conviction, be subject to a fine of $100.00 per day for each day of noncompliance, up to a maximum of fifteen days of noncompliance (maximum $1,500).” The bill also states that costs for the management activities are at the expense of the owner of the property and, if unpaid, will incur a lien on the property.