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Prairie dogs are such cute and anthropomorphized mascots that a constituent called a Longmont City Council member on her first day in office wailing about the death of “the babies.” Councilmember Marcia Martin whipped her car around, thinking she was responding to an accident at a preschool. 

Instead, she pulled up to the scene of a protest at a prairie dog fumigation. 

By another telling, prairie dogs are such voracious, plague-infected rodents that the only places left in Colorado willing to accept them are a former plutonium weapons factory and a spot where they burn what’s left of America’s mustard gas. 

Welcome back to one of Colorado’s longest-running festivals, the debate over how much time, money and emotional energy should be spent on cynomys ludovicianus. Also known as “barking squirrels,” “target practice,” or to dozens of other grateful species, simply “lunch.” 

The 2022 version of prairie dog hostilities, a show always renewed for another season, currently focuses on Longmont. More than a thousand prairie dogs have been digging holes and chirping at the future site of a retail center diagonal from a hospital. They spent August sniffing skeptically at traps laid for them before they are trucked to federal land at Rocky Flats and the Pueblo Chemical Depot. 

An animal rights and rescue activist applied for a state permit to relocate the Longmont prairie dogs to a farm she’d bought near Pawnee Buttes, until neighbors and most of the official farming and ranching ecosystem in Colorado protested vehemently. Gov. Jared Polis’s husband and unapologetic animal rights crusader, Marlon Reis, weighed in for the farm relocation, starting a brief but vicious Facebook war with rural Colorado in the process. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers handling the application openly declared the permit had gotten “political” and beyond their pay grade. 

Ranchers said prairie dogs eat all their forage and dig holes that break the legs of livestock. Animal defenders and university researchers said prairie dogs improve forage as natural aerators, and that bison multiplied amid prairie dogs for thousands of years.

Prairie dogs at the southeast corner of East Ken Pratt Boulevard and County Line Road in Longmont are being relocated to Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. (Photos by Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)
A prairie dog skull rests near a burrow at Croissant Red Angus Ranch. Rancher Kevin Miller does his best to keep the prairie dog population on his land at bay because “They destroy everything,” he said.

Because Colorado wildlife officials consider the prairie dog population to be abundant, despite their loss of range, it is legal for landowners to exterminate them for a new development. So animal advocates have been partially successful pushing for local laws in places like Longmont, which now requires a good faith effort at relocation before any prairie dogs can be killed. 

The Longmont developer realized the mascot/varmint dichotomy wasn’t going to be solved in his financial lifetime, and found more willing hosts at two of the state’s more notorious hazardous waste locations, in Jefferson and Pueblo counties. 

“We jumped into this with our eyes open,” Longmont’s Sandstone Marketplace development representative Frank DeSiena said. After a solid year and at least $100,000 cash spent on the relocation, DeSiena is still reeling from the attention. 

“It’s pretty amazing, the focus that’s been generated on a thousand prairie dogs versus the other 3 million in Colorado.”

It’s enough to make a sane citizen dive deep into a prairie dog warren in search of common ground.

The Fast and the Furry-ous facts

Prairie dog barks or chirps are specific and communicate messages to family members. One prairie dog chirp means “human approaching.” Another, distinct prairie dog chirp means “human with gun approaching.” 

Up to 170 species rely on prairie dogs for food or shelter. If you want golden eagles soaring over the suburbs, you need prairie dogs. 

Sometimes those dependent species eat their homebuilder and then take over the shelter. No judgment here, just burrowing (owl) into the facts. 

Development and farming and ranching have wiped out 98% of prairie dog habitat in Colorado.

Many of the 9,877 prairie dogs killed in 2021 were in Colorado. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ninety-eight percent of the severely endangered black-footed ferret’s diet is prairie dog.

Number of prairie dogs killed in 2021 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services — 9,877. Many of those were in Colorado. (“Wildlife Services” is their euphemism, not ours.) 

Number of prairie dog burrows destroyed in 2021: 18,921. 

Number of additional prairie dogs buried alive when those 18,921 burrows were destroyed: Unknown.

In 2003, prairie dog import and export as pets were banned after they were associated with an outbreak of deadly disease. Not the plague. Monkeypox

The Rescuers

“We really want to present solutions,” said Jeremy Gregory, who works with Prairie Protection Colorado to support prairie dog relocations and oppose mass killings. 

“Animals are sentient beings, cognizant beings, not just objects. They are living beings with feelings and emotions and cognition,” Gregory said. “We’re all in this together. We really try to break through the anthropocentric mindset that we’re at the top and everything is below us.”

The way Coloradans treat prairie dogs is emblematic of worldwide conflicts over land, the environment and global warming, Gregory said. He paraphrased undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau: Without man, nature flourishes. But without nature, man perishes. 

Gregory is among those appalled at the annual lists of animals, including prairie dogs, destroyed by the USDA. Prairie dogs are often killed with poison tablets of aluminum phosphide, Gregory noted. The supposedly humane method of pumping carbon monoxide down holes and having them die in their sleep sounds barbaric when applied to anything not a rodent, he added. 

“That’s the killing culture I’m talking about,” Gregory said. “That’s 10,000 individual, sentient beings.”

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Keep destroying the prairie dog ecology, he added, and people will see how many dependent species also falter, just as they’ve started to see the local impacts of climate change. 

Speaking as a member of a Longmont family that farmed in Boulder County for years, Gregory said, he feels farmers and ranchers could pay more respect to all the animals they steward. Take the claims about prairie dog burrows being a leg trap for livestock, Gregory said. 

“That’s just insulting the intelligence of the cow and horse, because they know what they’re doing,” he said.

Equally insulting are donation programs like the one run by the Colorado Department of Transportation, Gregory said. Prairie dogs that are in the way of road building and can’t be relocated are trapped, taken to a truck and euthanized, then donated to raptor rescues as free food. 

“That’s a greenwash, to make people feel good about what they’ve done,” he said. 

Gregory and other advocates are trying to impart the message that “working with ecology, you can still make a profit without destruction of wildlife or the land. And that’s really what we want to teach farmers and ranchers,” he said. “That there’s still a way you can reduce and mitigate human-wildlife conflict.”

The Developers

Frank DeSiena is willing to follow Longmont’s laws meant to offer prairie dogs within city limits every chance at survival. But the developer is still waiting for anyone to offer help with the considerable expense. 

DeSiena represents developers of the Sandstone mixed office and retail location near UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital. The land, already ringed by sidewalks, is hemmed in by apartments, Colorado 119, a Walmart Supercenter and the county line road separating Boulder from Weld. The burrow-pitted lot houses about 1,200 prairie dogs, providing entertainment for walkers and motorists and a steady diet for hawks and eagles. 

Longmont’s rules mean not a ’dozer blade can touch the ground until the prairie dogs get a shot at rescue, DeSiena said. He began trying in earnest early in 2021.

Prairie dogs and their homes have taken over the lot. (Photos by Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Wildlife biologist Connor Crane sets out traps to relocate the prairie dogs to Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

He offered prairie dogs to the federal government’s black-footed ferret breeding facility in Larimer County. That’s where ferrets near extinction from loss of prairie dog habitat in the wild are coddled toward reestablishment by snacking on prairie dogs removed as their habitat shrinks further.

Longmont told DeSiena that making the prairie dogs meals on wheels did not constitute relocation as intended by law. “They said, you’re relocating them live, only to be eaten. And I didn’t quite understand the logic of that,” he said. “You care about prairie dogs. Don’t you care about the ferrets?” 

He then thought he had a deal worked out to donate euthanized prairie dogs to a local raptor rehabilitation center. Again he was told: friends not food. “They said, ‘That’s not the spirit of the law, either.’ OK, you want to help me out here?”

At some point in 2021, a wildlife and land conservationist named Sheree Seabury stepped up, saying she’d bought hundreds of acres northeast of Briggsdale, near where the Pawnee Buttes soar over northern Weld County. Seabury, who did not respond to requests for an interview, works with prairie dog groups and is also a board member of the Southern Plains Land Trust. She said she could take 900 prairie dogs on her hundreds of acres there, and applied for a state relocation permit. 

Briggsdale and surrounding acreage immediately chirped a loud, “No, thanks.”

Which brings us to . . . 

Rancher Kevin Miller of Croissant Red Angus near Briggsdale doesnÕt want more prairie dogs on his land. In addition to the threat of plague and trip hazards, their presence leads to soil erosion. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The Ranchers

Kevin Miller’s family had approximately the same reaction to the proposed Briggsdale prairie dog relocation as a prairie dog does when a live, endangered and hungry black-footed ferret is released in their burrows: “Wait. What now?”

The Miller and Croissant families run hundreds of cattle on a cow-calf operation called Croissant Red Angus. And they already have plenty of prairie dogs of their own, thanks very much. Relations between most ranchers and prairie dogs, Miller said, are “typically not very friendly. The reason being is they tend to proliferate at a high rate. And as you very well know, down in the Denver metro area you can see that wherever there’s a colony, there is no grass.”

On the increasingly dry Eastern Plains, no grass for cattle also means no grass to hold the soil. Infrequent rains wash away the good nutrients, but near-constant winds blow away even more. 

Ranchers are worried about prairie dog’s potentially destructive influence on grasslands. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Seabury’s promise to build plastic construction-style fencing at her border, and supplement it with natural hedgerows over time, did not assure anyone that imported prairie dogs would stay put. 

“They don’t respect C470. Why would they respect a fence?” Miller said. “You see prairie dogs on both sides of the road down C470, and down the median. That didn’t just magically happen. They have the capabilities to get where they need to go.”

Researchers who love to talk about how many species prairie dogs support don’t mention how many species are hurt by their denuding of the landscape, he added. The complex prairie-pasture biology includes not only livestock, but wandering deer and elk and antelope, and plovers and dozens of other bird species that rely on grass. 

“Most ranchers’ goals are not just to profit from their cows,” Miller said. “That’s part of our business, but the other big part of it for most ranchers is what do we do ecologically for the environment? We have to feed all the open space critters that everybody seems to love.”

Miller has heard the researchers’ taunt that bison thrived amid prairie dog holes. “Let me know if one of those researchers was alive when the bison roamed the plains,” he said. 

Farming and ranching trade groups with much political clout immediately circled the pickups in the Briggsdale fight, firing off letters against the mass prairie dog relocation in the middle of working ranches. Weld County Farm Bureau. Weld County Commissioners. West Greeley Conservation District. Even the folks holding the conservation easement placed years ago on Seabury’s proposed property, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, objected, saying prairie dogs were not what the land was conserved for. 

Maybe Front Range city residents need to have more conversations about urban land use, rather than look to rural Colorado once again as a place to dump problems, Miller said. But he also thinks ranchers and farmers are much more in line with conservation groups than advocates think, if they’d agree to talk things out. 

“Their idea is, ‘I am going to save a single species, we don’t worry about what the impacts are across the biome.’ And so when you begin to have some of these conversations, realistically after you get through the battling forums, you find that you’re both on the same side,” Miller said. “Most of the time.”

The Researchers

Those who study prairie dogs intensely tend to become big fans. Longtime observers mention the familial ties, that prairie dog relatives greet each other with hugs and apparent kisses, their communication that distinguishes between messages for family and messages for others. Not only are they crucial food for endangered species like ferrets or eagles or wolves, their burrows become homes for owls, badgers, snakes and other animals. 

Colorado State University’s Ana Davidson is among those who believe more than a little pushback on behalf of prairie dogs is in order, after systematic federal extermination efforts in the early 1900s and a foreign plague that regularly decimates the creatures that are left. 

People walk or drive by a busy prairie dog colony in a random open field and assume the species is thriving, or even out of control, Davidson said. What they don’t see is frequent plague waves killing 99% of a colony, all the species that feed on that colony also suffering, and a few survivors taking years to repopulate. 

“Prairie dog populations and their colonies and the associated species have declined dramatically. And so, that is the big picture of all of this that we need to be considering,” said Davidson, a research scientist and faculty member at CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology

Red Angus cattle graze at Croissant Red Angus Ranch on Sept. 1. (Photos by Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)
A prairie dog peeks out of its hole at the southeast corner of E. Ken Pratt Blvd. and E. County Line Rd.

Davidson calls prairie dogs the beavers of dry land. The same USDA Wildlife Service killed nearly 25,000 beavers last year. Yet more and more communities are discovering all the species that depend on beavers culling trees and building dams that create wildlife-rich marshlands — including humans. Wildfire mitigation experts, including in Rocky Mountain National Park, encourage beavers with artificial housing to maintain wetlands that are proven to slow down or stop raging wildfires, as in the 2020 East Troublesome disaster.

Like beavers, Davidson said, prairie dogs are “valued for their ecological super important keystone role, but also have high level conflict with human activities.”

The dispute rages on about whether prairie dogs ruin agricultural lands, or enhance them. Farmers point to bare ground around the colonies as a desert. Davidson said prairie dogs clipping the grass stimulates nitrogen uptake and makes the leaves that remain younger and healthier. 

“So large herbivores like cattle and bison are known to be attracted to prairie dog colonies to consume the more nutritious forage,” she said. 

She and colleagues are creating detailed online maps of existing prairie dogs, potential prairie dog habitat, and overlays of where local laws might provide cover to rebuild prairie dog protections and colonies away from agricultural conflicts. 

“It’s a huge area of need, to find paths towards coexistence. And it’s very, very challenging,” Davidson said.

The Politicians

For a long time, opponents of the prairie dog relocation to Briggsdale were convinced they were in a rigged game. Colorado Parks and Wildlife would be under heavy pressure to approve the application, they said, because of animal rights interests on the state board. And because of the First Gentleman, a pugilistic animal rights supporter on social media who holds the attention of Gov. Jared Polis. 

In Facebook postings last year, Marlon Reis called for volunteers with land to be “heroes for prairie dogs” and blasted rural opponents of the Briggsdale relocation as ungrateful for all the federal and state assistance they get, “thinking your vote matters more than the rest of ‘urban’ Colorado.”

“I ought to be shocked by your immaturity, but I’ve witnessed first-hand the way you love to play the victim card, no doubt because it’s always worked for you,” Reis posted. “Well, it’s not going to work anymore. Colorado is more than ranchers, and it’s time to adapt rather than complain.”

Suspicions that the decision might not be solely on the biological merits were amped by one of the state wildlife officers reviewing the application. “You may or may not know that this application has made its way to the desks of individuals well above my pay grade in Denver and I am not sure how this will shake out but it has become political,” area wildlife manager Jason Surface said, in an email released to the Sun after an open records request. 

Reis’ Facebook posts or other top-down comments were not what Surface meant, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Travis Duncan said. “The decision regarding this application has always remained at the regional level.” 

“In this case, the application was elevated to CPW’s leadership team,” he added, because of “direct communications from the local community opposing the transfer. We have to address escape concerns and that was an issue with this permit, which had heavy local opposition. … CPW similarly takes into account support for individual applications, and remained in contact with Ms. Seabury” as alternative locations emerged. 

Longmont City Council member Marcia Martin is somewhat resigned to how “political” prairie dog conflicts get, but is still constantly surprised by the emotions stirred up. 

“It was a big issue for all of 2018, I think. And I was on the wrong side of it in terms of popularity,” said Martin, who continues to question the months of delays developers face from the permitting bureaucracy when they need to move prairie dogs. If state and local governments are going to keep throwing new roadblocks in front of developers via prairie dog rules, they need to help find more places willing to take them, she argues.
She says she might have been more diplomatic in debates that year, but would not change the gist of what she said in public — she had admonished the council and animal supporters for spending more time on the rodents than on humans “dying in the street” for lack of social services.

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Martin says she has “semi-redeemed myself in the eyes of the prairie dog advocates” by quickly connecting them to rescue organizations whenever a new relocation or extermination comes up.

“That’s something that I can do with a clear conscience,” Martin said. “But I didn’t have a clear conscience in 2018, about giving prairie dogs priority over homeless people.”

Martin mentions another rodent with a far less effective publicity team. The Preble’s meadow jumping mouse is a threatened species whose tiny remaining habitat is equally under pressure from Front Range development, Martin noted. 

But the Preble’s is extremely elusive, and mice in general are not revered for cuteness or for standing next to highways and hugging their family members. Few constituents are coming to Longmont meetings shouting for the Preble’s mouse. Emotions run highest for their distant cousins, the prairie dogs.

Said Martin, “It’s certainly not a matter of reason.”

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Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: booth@coloradosun.com Twitter: