DISPATCHES
Burrow Me Not on the Lone Prairie
by Rob Schultheis 
Jan 06, 2011 | 2078 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
What to do about the prairie dogs? Seems to be one of the prime questions currently kindling tempers and raising ire in Telluride today, along with the efforts of Monsieurs Riley and Chapman to befoul the sacrosanct Upper Bear Creek basin in order to squeeze a few more sawbucks out of the most beautiful stretch of high country on the planet.

I won’t get into the latter now – I’m trying to ease my psyche into the next four weeks of roaming jungled karst mountains and hill tribe villes and sea kayaking the malachite waters off Thailand – but I’ll take a shot (bad choice of words, I guess) at the Cynomys gunnisoni  conundrum.

First of all, the Telluride community purchased the Valley Floor for a number of reasons: for open space, to checkmate the continued overdevelopment of this tiny, fragile alpine niche;  for recreation, ranging from crosscountry skiing to hiking, trail running and mountain biking; and to restore some of the non-human natural magic that existed here for tens of thousands of years before the mining boom devastated the area.   The return of wildlife to the outskirts of town has for the most part delighted locals and visitors alike:  the elk grazing along the roadside, the occasional coyotes loping across the old pasturelands, the beavers along the river, and the sighting a month or two ago of a mountain lion trotting along the forests’ edge…. We are extremely lucky to live in a place where sights like this are woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

What about the prairie dogs, then?  I don’t think we want to begin a process of saying this wild species is good and this other one is bad, and eliminating the ones we find undesirable for one reason or another.  For instance, I have heard certain timid souls who recently moved here bringing their urban myopia with them talk about how coyotes are somehow “dangerous.”   

If they had their way, any carnivore larger than a ferret would be hunted down and exterminated to make everything as “safe” as it (supposedly) is back in suburban Chevy Chase or Orange County. Yuck. If we start meddling with the Valley Floor’s fauna we’ll eventually end up with a glorified Central Park, populated by harmless photogenic beasts: The world’s highest petting zoo.

But it’s hard to deny that the prairie dogs are, well, a “problem.” They’ve turned their portion of the Valley Floor into an ever-growing mini-Kalahari, and even if it’s not “right,” or “biologically ethical,” it seems almost certain that public sentiment will not tolerate their spread across more and more of the Valley Floor. Right now, the prevailing opinion seems to be “off the little buggers,” by poison, asphyxiation or whatever works fastest and most completely.

Can I humbly suggest an alternative, an intelligent one? (We are a remarkably visionary community:  the very fact that we raised so much money and worked so hard to save the Valley Floor in the first place, let alone preserve Lower Bear Creek and resuscitate the beaver pond by Town Park is proof enough.)   Let’s take a deep breath, and try zoning the prairie dogs, using methods that have been proven to work elsewhere. Put up raptor poles in the middle of Prairie Dog Town, to attract the raptors that prey on them. Plant clusters of bushes and saplings here and there across Dog Town: Prairie dogs abhor habitats where their field of view is broken by vegetation that might hide predators.  Raise the water table, and simultaneously bury dog-proof underground plastic “fences” six feet or so deep around their present territory.  Do more planting along the northern edge of the dogs’ digs to discourage them from burrowing next to the 145 Spur and eventually colonizing the highway’s north side even more.  Maybe import another breeding pair of badgers to join those who’ve already moved there and are dining on prairie dogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner….

If we can keep them in a reasonably sized neighborhood, maybe someday we will actually learn to like them, the way we like the beaver pond beavers, the elk and the rest.  

No, it’s not ideal, or “natural.” And yes, it is hypocritical:  We humans have already ravaged this Paradise of ours worse than a hundred million prairie dogs on steroids and Viagra could in a thousand years. But it sure beats poisoning the whole colony and the badgers and other creatures that dwell there. That just doesn’t sound “Telluridian” to me.  At least it’s worth a try, isn’t it? 
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