As the prairie dog population in La Plata County rises and wreaks havoc on landowners, the presence of the often-reviled rodent has some hoping for an unconventional solution: the plague.
“They are a big problem, and it’s a constant battle,” said Dave James, who has ranched in the Animas Valley north of Durango for more than 50 years. “The plague would help.”
Over the past 10 years or so, farmers, ranchers and land managers in Southwest Colorado have noted the uptick in prairie dog colonies and the growing frustrations with them.
“It’s gradually gotten worse and worse,” said Ben Bain, weed control coordinator for La Plata County.
Bain said prairie dogs started taking a foothold in the early 2000s, when the area was experiencing a drought, which killed vegetation and resulted in more wide-open spaces – the ideal habitat for the burrowing rodent.
Prairie dogs live in a complex network of tunnels, with different rooms for sleeping, storing food and breeding. Their colonies usually consist of one male, one or more females and a litter of three to four pups.
Landowners have free range to limit prairie dog numbers, primarily through shooting or gassing them, but even so, the animal’s ability to endure and reproduce makes it feel like a losing battle.
“Last year, they were horrific,” said Wayne Semler, who ranches near Bayfield. “And they’re as bad this year.”
There’s no question: Prairie dogs have an outstanding impact on ranchers trying to make a living where colonies flourish.
Colonies dig a network of tunnels and holes, which pose a risk to livestock grazing on the land. James said it’s a $3,000 financial hit if one of your cattle breaks a leg from stepping in a prairie dog hole.
The holes can also break equipment. Just the other day, Semler said an axle broke on one of his rigs after hitting a prairie dog hole, which not only costs money to repair but takes time to fix – time not spent working the land.
And, prairie dogs’ voracious appetite can take out whole fields – land that was meant for cattle to graze.
“It’s an attack on my livelihood,” Semler said. “All those costs add up.”
There’s no clear path toward striking a balance between prairie dog populations and the demands of ranchers and farmers. Shooting and gassing the animal can temporarily help, but populations quickly rebound.
And, if your neighbor isn’t on top of keeping numbers down, the animals can just go under the fence.
“Not having huge populations would be ideal,” Bain said. “But as far as that happening, I think the plague would be the most guaranteed way to having a downscale in the population. Otherwise, it’s just routine maintenance.”
Plague, an infectious disease associated with the Black Death in the 14th century in Europe, is not a part of the natural cycle of prairie dogs. Yet over the years, spread of the plague has wiped out colonies, causing the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider listing the species as endangered. And, prairie dogs, through fleas, can spread the disease to other animals, such as squirrels, mice, domestic cats and dogs, as well as humans.
But increased development and expanding agricultural lands, which have caused widespread habitat loss, also played into the ruling, said Brad Weinmeister, a Durango-based biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“The overall size of their range has decreased drastically,” he said.
It’s believed that prairie dogs were once the most abundant mammal in North America, numbering into the hundreds of millions, according to Defenders of Wildlife. Today, best estimates show a population of around 10 million to 20 million, about a 95 percent loss.
The Fish and Wildlife Service deemed that listing the prairie dog as endangered was warranted but, ultimately, did not list the species. The agency does, however, require continued mentoring.
Prairie dogs are essential for the ecosystem. A number of species – badgers, foxes, coyotes, owls, etc. – feed on the rodent. Weinmeister said he’s noted an uptick of weasels in the area as prairie dogs thrive.
“Just about every predator out there will eat a prairie dog,” he said.
CPW is also determining where to reintroduce black-footed ferrets – one of Colorado’s most endangered species – based on the stability of prairie dogs, a main food source.
That has led to a contentious debate at the state level over the vaccination of prairie dogs from plague, mostly on the eastern plains. Still, wildlife managers in Southwest Colorado are on the look out.
“We try to respect both sides,” Weinmeister said.