Prairie Dog Musings
by Amy Cannon
Jul 08, 2010 | 1147 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“If the prairie dog goes, so goes an entire ecosystem. Prairie dogs create diversity. Destroy them and you destroy a varied world.”

- Terry Tempest Williams


Privileges know no boundaries. The privilege of choice is one all humans have but rarely recognize the magnitude of it. Or, more profoundly, recognize the responsibility. The Gunnison’s prairie dogs that inhabit the small to modest sized colony on the Valley Floor are threatened. They are threatened because of our Valley Floor Management Plan, the document prepared by the Town of Telluride from the results of ERO Consulting Firm, whom the town hired, which mandates insufficient and unscientifically biased management. It is noteworthy that there is not one PhD scientist on ERO Consulting Firm’s staff.

Gunnison’s prairie dogs, Cynomys gunnisoni, are warranted for listing by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Specifically, Gunnison’s prairie dogs in the montane portions of their range are those who are eligible for protection status. Populations of Gunnison’s prairie dog can be considered to occur in two separate range portions – higher elevations referred to as montane populations and lower elevations referred to as prairie populations. We have montane habitat here in the Telluride Valley; The Valley Floor. Montane habitat consists primarily of higher elevation, cooler and moister plateaus, benches, and intermountain valleys ranging in elevation from 6000’-12,000’. Originally, not located on the USFW range map as montane range, the Telluride region in San Miguel County which includes the Valley Floor will be modified to be included on the USFW range map.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service asks the public to continue to submit any new information that becomes available concerning the status of or threats to the Gunnison’s prairie dog. This information will help to monitor the status of the species and help in the formulation of a future proposed listing rule. I refer to this plea from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to immediately examine the Valley Floor Management Plan which calls for containment of prairie dogs who leave the primary 23 acre prairie dog town. Containment management is a threat to these Gunnison’s prairie dogs. Therefore proceeding with containment actions is in direct contradiction of the spirit of the USFW warranted endangered species listing of the Gunnison’s prairie dogs, and is potentially a criminal violation.

Nicole Rosmarino, PhD, independant conservation biologist for Wild Earth Guardians, highly regarded leaders in global conservation efforts, guided several citizens, including teenage children of Telluride who are concerned about the Valley Floor Management Plan and its potential detrimental effects on the resident species inhabiting the Valley Floor. Mayor Stu Fraser and Town Planner Lance McDonald accepted the group’s invitation to join in walking through the 23-acre Gunnison’s prairie dog colony as Dr. Rosmarino explained some of the natural history facts of the species. She did this without any expense incurred, simply through the generosity of sharing her professional expertise as a credentialed scientist. She explained that the containment method of live- trapping and then moving the naturally dispersing prairie dogs back to the main colony, an action referred to as translocation, is proven to have a low success rate; they will not re-integrate. This procedure is expensive, stressful and lacks efficacy. She offered a preferred method to limit a colony’s area, which has a proven success, which is to grow higher vegetation, like willows, creating a biological border which is unsafe, from a prairie dog perspective, to cross. This method is humane. Dr. Rosmarino also explained that the sylvatic plague is not carried by the Gunnison’s prairie dog. It is carried by a flea. Because of prairie dog’s non-resistance to sylvatic plague, if bitten by a plague carrying flea, the entire prairie dog colony will quickly die. The Mayor and Town Planner learned from Dr. Rosmarino that live-trapping and attempting to translocate the species is ineffective. Dr. Rosmarino posed the important question, which turns out to be apropos for the entire populous to consider: “Why not let the prairie dogs be free to spread over the remaining 40 possible acres of inhabitable space on the 550 acre Valley Floor?”

Any of us who are laymen or lesser-credentialed scientists are wise to defer to a PhD scientist for our consultation to guide our action. Ignoring the input of the only PhD biologist who has offered consultation to town officials is a failure to realize the magnitude and responsibility of the choice which they have as elected and hired town employees. Choosing to go ahead with the trapping and attempting to translocate Gunnison’s prairie dogs is blatantly conducting inhumane treatment of sentient and endangered beings in the name of pacifying constituents with vague or non-existent scientific knowledge. Only science can guide the understanding of this endangered, keystone species. One small colony could thrive on a 550 acre, $50,000,000 tract of land. This land deal was pitched to donors, like me, to be “Forever Wild”. Choosing to halt the containment action is making a choice to defer to the most professional information available to Telluride, which cannot be denied. This choice would elevate our town’s leadership and be a step in the essential change needed to accommodate, not destroy our tenuous biodiversity. Dr. Richard Leakey, the world’s most famous paleoanthropologist explains about his book The Sixth Extinction, "It's the next annihilation of vast numbers of species. It is happening now, and we, the human race, are its cause. Every year, between 17,000 and 100,000 species vanish from our planet”, he says. "For the sake of argument, let's assume the number is 50,000 a year. Whatever way you look at it, we're destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet, or even a shower of vast heavenly bodies.” Scholar David Ulansey sums up Leakey’s analysis saying, “The statistics he has assembled are staggering. Fifty per cent of the Earth's species will have vanished inside the next 100 years; mankind is using almost half the energy available to sustain life on the planet, and this figure will only grow as our population leaps from 5.7 billion to ten billion inside the next half-century. Such a dramatic and overwhelming mass extinction threatens the entire complex fabric of life on Earth, including the species responsible for it: Homo sapiens.”

Because Dr. Nicole Rosmarino is recognized as an expert in conservation biology, she was invited as a special guest at this year’s Mountainfilm Festival to speak on the extinction crisis. In her impassioned symposium speech titled, What is Disappearing in Our Own Backyard?, she says, “If you control nature, you kill it…once we make room in our hearts, we’ll make room in our landscape.” She spoke of this as she referenced prairie dogs.

Who are any of us not to listen? We have an extinction crisis in our time and in our own backyard. Telluride has a rare opportunity now to be the culture who takes the lead in protection of this misunderstood species, regardless of the pressure of the uninformed or by the popular notion of prairie dogs as varmints. From 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. For example, their abandoned burrows are used by burrowing owls, weasels, snakes, badgers, and even foxes. The prairie dog is an important food source for coyote, weasels, foxes, hawks, eagles, and the endangered black footed ferret. In addition, their burrowing helps to aerate the soil, add organic matter, and help to increase water penetration.” And this quote is a snapshot only of the approximately 143 species which have natural dependence on this animal for survival.

Lastly, I want to fit this in, and share with you, my favorite line from Max Ehrmann’s poem Desiderata, “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.”

Prairie dogs do too. Remember coexisting, not dominating?


– Amy Cannon, Telluride
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