The sightings come just weeks after the Telluride Town Council unanimously adopted a prairie dog management plan that town officials hoped would quiet the often-contentious debate spawned by the prairie dog issue.
Telluride Town Council member David Oyster found what he called a “sick or wounded” prairie dog on the 400 block of east Pandora Ave. last Friday, outside his home. Mike Zuendel also saw the prairie dog, lying in the middle of Pandora Street, its tongue lolling out of its mouth, “appearing sickly.”
Pandora Ave. resident David Mallette confirmed that he observed a prairie dog near his property last Sunday, which he says was “obviously ill, crawling around in the street.”
It is unclear whether the sightings were of the same prairie dog, but it does seem that the sightings took place on different days.
The incidents kindled a fresh wave of dialogue about the controversial Valley Floor dwellers, who were given a reprieve when Town Council voted last month to amend the Valley Floor Management Plan to replace the previous “containment” approach with a “natural dispersal” management strategy.
The amendment assured that extermination would not be an option for prairie dog management, and that while the colonies located within the previously delineated 23-acre prairie dog conservation area would be given some degree of protection (trail construction and other recreational activities will be discouraged there), colonies that migrate beyond the boundaries of the conservation area would not be given any special accommodations.
The sightings confirmed for some that the natural dispersal plan is fatally flawed, while others maintain these are isolated incidents, not warranting much attention.
Oyster, who voted in favor of the natural dispersal plan, noted that he did not know how the prairie dog could have found its way to his front drive, but maintained that he did not believe the incident was cause for alarm.
“Finding ten would be alarming,” Oyster said, although he maintained that the town intends to keep a “pretty close watch” on any prairie dogs showing signs of illness in the area.
Keeping a close eye on the prairie dog population is a main objective of the Prairie Dog Management Plan, penned by the town with help from the Open Space Commission and Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, PhD, the Wildlife Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. Taylor Jones, an Endangered Species Advocate for WildEarth Guardians who worked under Dr. Rosmarino on Telluride’s Prairie Dog Management Plan, notes that while the incidents could simply be an attempt to demonize a critter that has been at the forefront of a contentious local debate, the organization nevertheless takes seriously any allegations of sickness among the prairie dog colony and intends to follow up with the town and remain actively engaged in implementation of the Management Plan.
“Part of the purpose of the natural dispersal plan was to follow a wait-and-see attitude,” Jones explains. “We are interested in knowing how far the prairie dogs would migrate [from the Valley Floor.]”
The group will continue monitoring the colony’s borders, observing how the colony expands and contracts over time through GPS mapping. “It’s something we’re going to keep an eye on,” Jones said.
WildEarth Guardians have a special interest in the Gunnison’s prairie dog found on the Valley Floor, since it is a species that has been eyed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species web page on Gunnison’s prairie dogs, “The Gunnison's prairie dog is a keystone species of the sagebrush ecosystem. They create habitat, provide food, and help keep the soil and plant communities healthy.”
One longtime local rancher, who asked to not be identified, attests that the current colony of prairie dogs is much larger than it has ever been before, and that he has both seen and heard of prairie dogs sighted recently within the Town of Telluride’s boundaries. He expressed concern that the natural predatory cycle is not intact on the Valley Floor, because so many people and dogs recreate there.
“There aren’t predators there because they’re skittish around humans, so there’s no natural cycle,” he said.
For Zuendel, the fact that a prairie dog was seen many miles from the established colony was indeed cause for concern; so too was the matter of its seemingly unhealthy condition.
“It’s concerning to me to see one several miles from where it should be, not looking healthy… it just goes to show that this policy of natural dispersal is not going to work. They’re going to keep multiplying and increasing exponentially and it won’t be long before they’re coming into town,” he said.
WildEarth Guardians’ Jones says that it would be difficult to assess exactly what caused the abovementioned prairie dog to appear ill, noting its sickness could have been caused by a myriad of things, not excluding someone willfully attempting to exterminate the creature.
“If indeed someone were poisoning prairie dogs, you likely would see some sick ones wandering about aboveground, as was described,” Jones said, adding that intentional lethal control of prairie dogs is specifically prohibited by the management plan, and that any conflicts with prairie dogs must be resolved through non-lethal means.
It is unlikely that the sickly prairie dog spotted last week on Pandora Ave. was carrying sylvatic plague, Jones says, simply because of the speed with which plague outbreaks historically wipe out entire prairie dog colonies. “Generally, when plague occurs in a prairie dog colony, it is quickly apparent, as prairie dogs succumb rapidly to the disease and a colony may experience up to 99 percent mortality,” she explained.
She maintains however that common sense precautions should always be followed when traveling in or living near large colonies of prairie dogs or other small rodents. Do not handle any rodent, and don’t let domestic animals into areas where there are colonies present.
The Prairie Dog Management Plan mandates that if a significant die-off is observed, the San Miguel Department of Health and Human Services and the Town of Telluride will work with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to test for plague. The plan also calls for the affected area to be signed, and the public notified, if plague is confirmed, and that the colony will be dusted for fleas.
The town has not yet indicated whether it will seek any further investigation of the Pandora Ave. incident.