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Prairie dogs getting new attention and respect

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Originally printed in AZ Daily Sun on April 3, 2016 | Link to Original

by EMERY COWAN Sun Staff Reporter

A group of wildlife managers and interested residents crowded along a dirt road through Flying M Ranch on an unseasonably warm Friday last month. The group was there to learn about the prairie dogs that Flying M co-owner Kit Metzger says are starting to overrun her ranch, munching up grass and transforming about 7,000 acres of productive grazing land into an expanse of weeds and bare dirt.

“If they stay there long enough they kill all the grass off, then you get bare ground and all the issues that come with that,” Metzger said. “We can’t seem to change our management in any way to change their effects.”

Metzger emphasized that she knows prairie dogs are a native species and a key player in the larger community of plants and animals, but would like to find a better balance when it comes to the needs of the burrowing rodents and the needs of her cattle.

“We’ll live with some of them but we can’t live with that many of them,” she said.

Indeed, placing prairie dogs in the category of ranchland-destroying invaders would miss the larger narrative about these burrowing rodents’ role on the landscape. While considered a pesky nuisance by some, the species is a crucial component of the grassland ecosystem in the Four Corners region, including northern Arizona.

Local wildlife managers who specialize in prairie dogs say their work requires navigating between a range of perspectives on the rodents, from one that views them as prime competitors with ranching and agriculture to another devoted to helping the animals survive in any way possible.

And while prairie dogs may seem ubiquitous in places like Metzger’s ranch, over the past century, the species has lost 96 percent of its range, affecting not only grassland health but also the survival of the black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in the United States.

STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL

Prairie dog colonies once covered 100 million acres across 12 states in the Rockies and Great Plains regions. Now they are down to 3.7 million acres due to widespread poisoning and extermination campaigns in the early 20th century, the conversion of grasslands to cropland and housing developments and sylvatic plague, a disease introduced into Arizona in the 1930s.

Plague and habitat loss continue to make prairie dog population rebounds a struggle. There are also people, and even specifically organized coalitions, in the state that still believe it best to get rid of the animals, said Holly Hicks, the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s lead biologist for prairie dogs.

The rodents have gotten a bad rap in some people’s minds because they have significant and visible impacts on the landscape, said John Nystedt, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They also are seen as a competitor for both livestock and agriculture, which are the base of many people’s livelihoods, he said. Misinformation about things like the animals’ reproduction rates and their association with plague contribute to the negative perception as well, said Emily Renn, who works on prairie dog translocations with the nonprofit Habitat Harmony.

The rodents are key members of the grassland ecosystem, though.

They are prey for hawks, coyotes, golden eagles and other animals while their burrows are used as shelter by a host of species, including snakes, rabbits and burrowing owls. Those tunnels also make it easier for rain or snowmelt to percolate through the ground to the water table, while their digging helps recycle nutrients into the soil, Hicks said. The prairie dogs’ nibbling stimulates new growth on plants, and studies have shown vegetation on burrows has a higher nutritional content than in other areas, Hicks said.

“Prairie dogs are a keystone species, so if you take prairie dogs out, a lot of things will change in their absence,” she said.

On Metzger’s ranch the effects appear to be different. The prairie dogs’ numbers have taken off since 2008, and everywhere the animals turn up seems to soon transform from high-producing grazing land into a denuded landscape, reducing the carrying capacity of the ranch’s winter range by 15 to 20 percent.

She has tried various strategies to reduce the animals’ numbers, from installing hawk poles to leaving piles of thinned juniper trees on the ground, but nothing has really worked.

A MORE POSITIVE PICTURE

Nystedt, who specializes in the native Gunnison’s prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, was at the March visit to Flying M Ranch. He hasn’t seen the sort of issues Metzger is describing in other areas where there are large, dense colonies of prairie dogs, Nystedt said, leading him to think that the problem may be a mix of factors, some prairie-dog related and some not.

On Babbitt Ranches on the other hand, President and General Manager Bill Cordasco said he hasn’t noticed any impact positive or negative, of the voracious diggers on the productivity of the land.

Babbitt Ranches has actually welcomed relocated prairie dogs onto their property and has agreed to be a designated reintroduction location for black-footed ferrets, which requires maintaining a 3,000-acre corridor of prairie dog colonies.

Prairie dogs make up 90 percent of the endangered ferrets’ diet, and the reason for the animal’s near-extinction is “tied completely” to drastic reductions in prairie dog populations, Nystedt said.

Emily Renn, with Habitat Harmony, heads up local efforts to relocate prairie dogs in danger of losing their homes to development in and around Flagstaff. Relocations are effective but the process is complicated because prairie dogs ideally need to be relocated with animals in their same social group and can only be moved during a few months in the summer, Renn said.

Habitat Harmony also has a grant from the Arizona Game and Fish Department to explore nonlethal ways to manage prairie dog numbers. The department realizes that not everyone agrees with the ecosystem benefits of prairie dogs, but reducing the amount of poison applied on the landscape benefits all wildlife, Hicks said.

On a different track, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center have spent more than a decade developing and testing an oral sylvatic plague vaccine for prairie dogs that is delivered via bait. The final round of field testing, which includes a site on Babbitt Ranches, is happening this summer so researchers should have results next year, USGS Research Scientist Tonie Rocke said.

Despite the importance of prairie dogs in the grassland ecosystem, Hicks acknowledged that at times there is competition between the rodents and ungulates, which is where the balance is needed.

“Compromise needs to come in on both ends,” she said.

Volunteers Needed for Prairie Dog Relocation

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Habitat Harmony, Inc. is working with the Arizona Game & Fish Department and Vintage Partners to relocate a large prairie dog colony on 80 acres on the southwest corner of Country Club Road and Interstate 40 in Flagstaff, AZ. Vintage Partners has plans for a commercial development on this property, so the next two months are the only time we have to trap and relocate as many prairie dogs as possible before they begin hibernating for the winter and the site is scheduled for construction.

We would appreciate all the help we can get and time is short!

Volunteer Now - Online Signup

Trapping and releasing will continue daily through August and perhaps into mid-September.

Emily Nelson and Nate Renn have been mapping the capture site and estimate approximately 1,500 prairie dogs live there. We expect to trap them in phases on different parts of the site. Volunteer help is essential to catching as many prairie dogs as possible!

Volunteers are needed (all times are approximate depending on the weather and length of time each duty requires):

  • At the capture site at 4:45 am each morning to help set the traps –
  • this starting time is crucial for getting started and the traps set before the prairie dogs wake up for the day! (4:45 am to 6:30 am)
  • At the capture site from 7:00 am to 9:30 am to help watch the traps for captured prairie dogs and to give the early morning trap setters a break (7:00 am to 9:30 am)
  • At the capture site at 9:30 am to help close all the traps and pick up the captured prairie dogs to load into a vehicle for transport to the capture site (9:30 am to 11:00 am)
  • At the capture site at 10:30 am to ride out to the release site and help release the captured prairie dogs (10:30 am to 2:00 pm)
  • To help pre-bait each area daily during the week before we set the traps in that area
  • To provide supplemental food to all of the prairie dogs at the release site(s) for at least two weeks after the relocation
  • To help move the "No Trespassing" signs around each area of the capture site property where we have traps set out.
  • To help monitor the closed traps at the capture site in the afternoon and early evenings periodically each day to make sure the traps are not being tampered with while we are not on site.

Of course, monetary donations are always accepted and greatly appreciated! In fact, Vintage Partners has offered to match any donations up to $3,000 we receive! All donations will be used directly to help purchase the supplies needed for this relocation. You may send donations to Habitat Harmony at 5271 Mt. Pleasant, Flagstaff, AZ, 86004. Or you may use either Network for Good or Pay Pal online at http://www.habitatharmony.org/get-involved/donate.

We are very pleased that Vintage Partners understands the value of prairie dogs as keystone species of the ecosystem.

Join us as we Walk in Harmony with Wildlife!

Volunteer Now - Online Signup

~Tish Bogan-Ozmun

Protect Observatory Mesa from Development

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Dear Commissioner Hickman,

We are writing on behalf of Habitat Harmony, Inc., to encourage you to approve Coconino County’s request to reclassify State Trust lands (Sections 6, 8, 12, 18, and 19) on Observatory Mesa near Flagstaff as suitable for conservation purposes under the Arizona Preserve Initiative Petition 35-116166. Our group supports this reclassification because it fits with our mission of promoting protection of wildlife habitat and open space in northern Arizona. Protecting these particular parcels also helps secure night-time public viewing and future astronomical research opportunities at Lowell Observatory by limiting proximate light pollution.  

In 1998, the Flagstaff Open Space and Greenways Plan identified state trust (and other) lands on Observatory Mesa as priority areas for retention due to open space and resource values. These particular parcels include diverse landscapes and habitats, which provide year-round habitat and migratory corridors for large mammals including mule deer, elk, mountain lion, black bear, and pronghorn. The habitat may also be suitable for sensitive species such as northern goshawk, Mexican spotted owl, and Gunnison’s prairie dog. Suitable habitat also exists for a diversity of reptiles and amphibians, including plateau fence lizard, tree lizard, greater short-horned lizard, many-lined skink, Madrean alligator lizard, western terrestrial gartersnake, gophersnake, Sonoran mountain kingsnake, Arizona black rattlesnake, boreal chorus frog, Arizona mountain treefrog, and tiger salamander.

We support the petition recently submitted by the City of Flagstaff seeking reclassification of state trust lands at Observatory Mesa for conservation purposes, with subsequent acquisition through the Arizona Preserve and Growing Smarter Initiatives. Habitat Harmony, Inc. urges you to share our commitment to protecting wildlife habitat and open space in Coconino County by permitting this reclassification.

Sincerely,

Erika Nowak, PhD and the Board of Habitat Harmony:  
Tish Bogan-Ozmun
Sherry Golden
Bobbe Fitzgibbons
Jean Myers
Emily Nelson
Nate Renn

Get notified when the city plans to poison prairie dogs

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The City now has alerts/subscription lists for notification of baiting, etc, on the website. Here's how to register:

Go to: http://flagstaff.az.gov/list.aspx

Up comes a page where you can register for any number of notifications.

One of them is "Rodent Control."

This will let you know in advance of any planned prairie dog poisonings.

At least, now we'll be notified and can choose to act in the way we see fit for our own safety.  We can also act to change things!

Walk the Land

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rainbow

On Friday Novemeber 19, 2012, members of the Conservation Study Forum (CSF) joined with members of the Regional Plan's Citizen's Advisory Committee, city and county staff, Game & Fish staff, and a representative of the State Land Department to "Walk the Land".
 
We walked parts of state land parcels 10, 20 and 30 east of Flagstaff referring to maps for natural features.

Prairie Dog Life

Click on the burrow images to find out more.

Nursing Chamber

A mother keeps her young pups safe while the other Prairie Dogs investigate the snake.

Entering the Burrow

A prairie dog hears an emergency cry of "snake" and goes to investigate.

Listening chamber

A prairie dog sits listening just beneath the surface of the ground.

The Rattlesnake

The rattlesnake found a prairie dog burrow to sleep in but has been discovered by the prairie dogs.

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