TELLURIDE – Gunnison’s prairie dogs on the Telluride Valley Floor that seemed doomed a few days ago received a reprieve on Tuesday when the Town Council declined to authorize lethal control of the growing population that has strayed far beyond the boundaries of its protected, 23-acre colony east of Boomerang Road.
“I think that they were willing to be influenced by science and humanity,” said local prairie dog advocate Amy Cannon of council’s decision, which came after several hours of expert testimony and public input.
“I’m just validated and very grateful and pleased for their showing their good judgment,” she continued.
“I was very impressed with the judicious response that the town council had,” agreed fellow advocate Dan Chancellor.
The colony was identified for conservation and containment in the final Valley Floor Management Plan approved by council in August 2009.
“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.
Since then, however, the number of prairie dog holes outside the protected colonies has increased from about 30 or 40 to about 250 holes in 2010. 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.
In November the town’s Open Space Commission identified lethal control as the last of multiple means that could be employed to contain the population. Other means included planting bushes or shrubs along the containment perimeter to discourage prairie dog movement, fence construction and increased irrigation.
But the most controversial of those remedies got turned on its head when instead of authorizing lethal measures, council ultimately advised Town Program Director Lance McDonald to work with prairie dog expert Nicole Rosmarino, Ph.D., Wildlife Program Director of WildEarth Guardians, the San Miguel Conservation Foundation and the Telluride Open Space Commission to develop a scientifically sound strategy to manage the prairie dogs without resorting to poisons.
“At the outset we should take lethal control off the table,” said Rosmarino in her presentation to council, instead advocating a method known as Reverse Dispersal Translocation.
(Click here to see an exclusive interview with Rosmarino).
“I think this can be a very effective tool,” she said. “You don’t actually touch the prairie dog but you influence it’s movement across the landscape.”
“I’m not in a position to play god and I would support removal of the lethal option,” said Councilmember Chris Myers.
“I adamantly oppose the lethal control option,” said Councilmember Thom Carnevale.
“Just because we have opposable thumbs and complicated brains does not give us the right to manage wildlife,” said Councilmember David Oyster. “Let the animals manage themselves.”
The council-authorized methods should include additional irrigation, the establishment of raptor perches for increased predation, plantings and potentially fencing in short order, while the newly formed group takes a hard look at whether containment of the colony to 23 acres is realistic.
“I want to revisit the idea of the prairie dog boundaries,” said Councilmember Brian Werner, adding that he wanted to understand how the original boundary was determined.
“Nature doesn’t understand roads, it understands rivers and ridges,” he explained. “I would like to consider redrawing those boundaries to be more concurrent with those ones that the natural world can support.”
To address the concerns of several local residents who spoke at the meeting in favor of lethal control, particularly because some prairie dogs have begun to encroach into the town proper, council also directed that the issue should be separated into two distinct categories and action taken to prevent the animals from traveling further eastward.
“They really are two separate issues, and it seems like they made a really good decision in being aggressive about dealing with the prairie dogs that are spilling off the Pearl Property, and going with the right approach and stepping back and pausing and doing a more scientific and balanced approach to addressing the prairie dogs on the Valley Floor,” said Chancellor.
Even as the polarizing ground-squirrel has been at the center of a local controversy, its place on the national scene has been no less dynamic.
In 2004, more than 70 organizations petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the animal as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
After being sued later in 2004 for failure to complete a 90-day finding on the petition, the USFWS determined, in February 2006, that the animals did not warrant protected status. (The public subsequently learned that political interference impacted ESA listing decisions on multiple species, including the Gunnison’s prairie dog).
In December 2006 nine organizations sued the USFWS over that finding. Six months later, in June 2007, the parties reached a settlement that required the agency to submit a 12-month finding to the Federal Register by February 1, 2008.
In early February 2008, the agency again published its findings, but to a different effect.
That time it determined that the charismatic squirrel cousins, which are considered to occur in two separate ranges: higher elevations or “montane,” and lower elevations or “prairie,” should be listed as endangered or threatened species in the montane portion of their range (central and south-central Colorado and north-central New Mexico), but were precluded from listing by species with higher priorities.
At that time Telluride’s Valley Floor colony was not included in the montane portion. However, the USFWS is revisiting that decision following a recent court ruling that determined that a 2007 federal policy that allowed protections for species under the ESA to be limited to portions of their range, and that the USFWS could ignore the loss of historic range in deciding whether species are endangered, were invalid.
“In response to the court’s decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service will be revisiting the previous decision to determine whether the Valley Floor prairie dogs fit in the montane or prairie portion based upon genetic information being collected by the Colorado Division of Wildlife,” said USFWS Western Colorado Field Supervisor Al Pfister.
Depending on those and, potentially, other findings, the Valley Floor colony may be reclassified as a candidate species.
“There’s also the possibility that they could not be a candidate, “ he cautioned.
Describing the Gunnison’s prairie dog, which now inhabits just a small percentage of its historic range, as “sitting on the edge of extinction,” advocate Chancellor asked, “If they can’t live undisturbed on a wildlife preserve…in a forward-thinking community like Telluride, where can this tragically misunderstood creature find a home?”
“They’re really not a problem, they’re an opportunity,” said Ken Stack.
“We have a chance of a lifetime to help protect an endangered species.”
Rosmarino was pleased with the outcome of the meeting.
“It was a terrific result,” she said.
“I look forward to helping craft a strategy that will address the issues arising from prairie dogs on the Valley Floor.”
“Today was an example of how well this council can work together on difficult projects,” said Mayor Stu Fraser following the meeting.
“I was very pleased with the outcome today, it was an important discussion and we came together on it.”
Click here to see an exclusive interview with Rosmarino.