TELLURIDE – Facing concerns about an impending prairie dog population explosion, the Telluride Open Space Commission is poised to make some tough, and possibly politically unpopular, recommendations concerning the polarizing ground-squirrel that has taken up residence on the Valley Floor.
When it met this past Monday evening to fine-tune its 2011 Work Plan, the majority of the seven-member commission (member Nancy Craft was absent) agreed, some more reluctantly than others, that euthanasia may be employed to keep the ever-growing population from pushing itself far beyond the boundaries of its protected 23-acre colony located east of Boomerang Road that was identified for conservation and containment in the 2009 Valley Floor Management Plan.
“The Containment approach recognizes and balances other conservation and management goals for the Property, including habitat needs for other wildlife species, vegetation and weed management, aesthetics and scenic quality, public recreation, and public sentiment expressed during the educational forums and meetings during the Environmental Report process,” the Management Plan states.
“If left unchecked by human management or natural controls, the prairie dog population could expand to the west, colonizing another approximately 40 acres of available grassland habitat on the property.”
While the commission contemplated other alternatives for the prairie dog settlements outside the original colony, they were largely dismissed as too costly, impractical and possibly ineffective.
For example, the town hired a consultant to live trap 296 prairie dogs located outside the original colony this past summer and to return them to the containment area at a cost of about $6,700. To continue to live-trap and relocate the animals in a similar manner could cost about $8,000 a year, without guaranteeing a significant reduction or removal of new colonies.
Likewise, a plan to live trap and relocate the animals to another, non-Valley Floor location would cost an estimated $14,000 to $20,000 for 300 animals, but there is a lack of available receiving sites, save for a Black-footed Ferret recovery facility in Wellington, Colo.
While Town Program Manager Lance McDonald said the facility indicated willingness to take Telluride’s live prairie dogs to facilitate its recovery efforts, Commission Member Lisa Andrews seemed to strike a note with her colleagues when she said she could not support spending thousands of dollars to relocate the prairie dogs only for them to be eaten in another county shortly thereafter.
“Relocation seemed unreasonable,” said OSC Chair Marla Croke, summarizing the direction. “It just seemed unfeasible due to the costs, distance and fuel; that’s why we moved away from that.”
“We felt from a cost and realization standpoint of really making an impact on this, that [euthanization] was the best way to go,” she continued.
Onsite euthanization of those prairie dogs located outside the protected colony is anticipated to cost about $3,000 to manage the current expansion, with the price expected to decrease in future years.
Since 2009 the number of Valley Floor prairie dog holes has increased from about 30 to 40 located outside the original colony to about 250 holes this year. They range from the Entrada development at the Valley Floor’s southeastern edge to Society Turn at its far northwest corner. In between they pepper areas near the Shell Station and Eider Creek, in particular.
“The only way we’re really going to control [the prairie dogs] is aggressively and probably not with live traps,” said Commission Member Todd Creel, who was the most outspoken among his peers in his support of euthanization.
“Euthanization may not be the most politically correct approach, but this might be the discussion we need to have…unless everyone feels it’s inappropriate or inhumane, that’s what we need to do.”
The OSC envisioned a multi-pronged approach to maintaining the boundaries of the protected 23-acre colony moving forward, including the planting of bushes or shrubs like willow along its perimeter to discourage prairie dog movement, and the construction of a silt-type fence with chicken wire along its western boundary at Boomerang Road.
Creel lobbied against the fence idea, but Commission Member Peter Mueller successfully argued for it.
“It’s only fair to let them know if you’re going that way, you’re going to pay the piper,” he said, chuckling, but then adding more seriously, “It behooves us to do everything we can to just keep them in there.”
Irrigation of adjacent areas should be prioritized to minimize new colonization, while intermittent irrigation of the colony area could help to increase food supply, thereby discouraging the prairie dogs from venturing elsewhere.
And since raptors including eagles have been observed hunting prairie dogs from tall trees and power poles in the Eider Creek area, a final idea could place new perches near the original colony to encourage predation.
“We really know we have a problem out there and we’re really trying to follow the Management Plan and trying the best way we can to keep the prairie dogs under control,” said Croke.
Despite the OSC direction, the matter is far from settled. The commission is expected to present its work plan for Town Council approval at a January meeting, at which time critics of the Valley Floor prairie dog containment policy are also expected to present their case.
“You’re going to hear presentations that management of prairie dogs is inappropriate, that they should be allowed to go where they want to go; others say nuke them all,” said San Miguel Conservation Foundation Executive Director Gary Hickcox, whose organization holds the Valley Floor Conservation Easement.
“I think it’s important to say we’re trying to find a balance,” he continued, noting that those who contributed toward the $50 million purchase of the property expect a number of conservation values to be preserved there.