TELLURIDE – The Telluride Town Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a revision of the Valley Floor Management Plan, following a unanimous recommendation last week from the Telluride Open Space Commission.
The amendment calls for the use of “Natural Dispersal” management of Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs colony that occupies 23 acres on the Valley Floor to replace the previous “Containment” approach. The policy was devised by town staff in consultation with Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians and Gary Hickcox, representing the San Miguel Conservation Fund, which holds the property’s conservation easement.
Program Manager Lance McDonald called the natural dispersal approach a “softer method of control,” which rules out the use of lethal control, an aspect of the containment approach that had already been stopped.
“The Natural Dispersal approach recognizes the importance and significance of Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs and prioritizes their management east of Boomerang Road, while allowing natural dispersal in other areas of the property,” stated a staff memo to council. “Specifically, the area east of Boomerang Road would continue as the prairie dog conservation area wherein conservation of the species would be emphasized and disturbances would be minimized.”
Public use of the approximately 23-acre prairie dog conservation area would be discouraged, including limited irrigation and the avoidance of locating trails in the area for recreational activities such as hiking or cross-country skiing.
While prairie dogs would be allowed to disperse naturally outside of the conservation area, other uses would not be restricted or redirected to accommodate them there, in essence treating them like any other animal on the property.
Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, Wildlife Program Director for WildEarth Guardians, told council that the natural dispersal method should allow for a healthy co-existence between humans and prairie dogs, emphasizingthe importance of mapping the locations of prairie dogs and tracking their changes so that “knowledge-building” could serve as a management guide “instead of speculation and the fear of continuous expansion.”
She went on to say that she hoped people would come to think of the prairie dogs as a community scientific resource, allowing for experimentation with revegetation and reverse translocation techniques that might set examples for other communities.
To set public concerns to rest, Dr. Rosmarino answered some questions that many in the community have about the prairie dogs.
Are they Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs?
Council Member Brian Werner said that he had heard it stated many times that the prairie dogs on the Valley Floor were not, in fact, Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs. They are, assured Dr. Rosmarino. There is a question regarding what subspecies of the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog they are, but the species is determined.
Why are they important?
Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs are a “keystone” or “strongly interactive” species. “Prairie dogs provide habitat or serve as prey for over 200 species,” Rosmarino explained, “and that’s just vertebrate wildlife species.”
The fact that about 150 of those benefit from the presence of the prairie dogs is now well established in scientific literature, she said, “using the burrows the prairie dogs create, feeding on prairie dogs, feeding on wildlife attracted to prairie dog towns or whether they benefit from the way prairie dogs modify the plant community.” Because of this, a healthy prairie dog colony on the Valley Floor might reattract wildlife that has abandoned the Valley Floor over the years, she added.
Do prairie dogs carry the plague?
No, Rosmarino answered. Fleas carry the plague. Yes, fleas have been found on prairie dogs on the Valley Floor. The usual method of transference to humans would be for a cat (rarely dogs) to carry a flea back to its owner. The flea can come from any small mammal.
Is plague a cause for concern?
More for the prairie dogs than for humans. Prairie dogs have no immunity to the plague and die of it very quickly. It has the potential to quickly wipe out an entire prairie dog colony. Conversely, plague is very rare among people in the U.S. Over the last decade, said Dr. Rosmarino, there have been about 12 cases a year, one in seven fatal, usually because people didn’t seek treatment, Councilmember David Oyster added. The plague can, in fact, be used as an argument to leave the prairie dogs alone, Rosemarion said. It can be argued that killing them would leave fleas looking for another home … maybe on family pets. Thus, she said, the state recommends against killing them. The best course of action is to monitor the colonies for signs of the plague and deal with it at the source should the need arise.
Hickcox addressed complaints that the prairie dogs were not being managed on the property.
“We’re doing our job,” he said, explaining that their responsibility was the protection of the property over the long-term. He praised everyone’s work in putting together the new management plan.
Eileen McGinley perhaps summed up Hickcox’s sentiments saying: “The operative word for me has been the word “patience,” she said. “Our culture has gotten used to instant fixes, but this isn’t an instant fix. I think if we let Mother Nature take the lead in this case, we’ll be a better community for it … and the prairie dogs will be a better community, too.”
Every member of the public who spoke did so in favor of the new plan, none more succinctly than local business owner Jerry Greene. “I’m happy to see a change to a welcoming attitude. We are, after all, a hospitality community,” he said. “I look forward to the time when this is no longer called a Prairie Dog Colony but is accepted as a Prairie Dog Town.”