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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers endangered species act listing for critter

September 12, 2007, by Shannon Livick, Cortez Journal

Danny Decker, a Cortez farmer with 560 acres of hay, has an enemy lurking in the fields.

A prairie dog warns his fellow villagers of possible danger in their field behind the Mesa Verde Inn Tuesday afternoon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a proposal to place the Gunnisonís prairie dog, which lives in the Four Corners, on the endangered species list.
JOURNAL/SAM GREEN
A prairie dog warns his fellow villagers of possible danger in their field behind the Mesa Verde Inn Tuesday afternoon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a proposal to place the Gunnisonís prairie dog, which lives in the Four Corners, on the endangered species list.
That enemy is prairie dogs.

Decker is not alone. Local farmers, ranchers, business owners and government agencies grumble and groan when they see this four-legged rodent pop its head out of freshly-dug hole, and many people will do almost anything to get rid of prairie dogs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced the Gunnison's prairie dog, a species found only in the Four Corners, will be reconsidered for the endangered species list, giving the animal that loves to dig up local land federal protection.

"I think that is the worst thing they can do," Decker said.

A prairie dog colony can ruin a crop of hay, he said. The mounds they create will get dust in the hay. One time, Decker's tractor fell into a prairie dog hole and broke an axle.

"It cost $2,500 to replace," he said. "The prairie dogs do so much damage across the country, (listing them) would be devastating."

Even though Decker does his best to control the population, the species still thrives.

"It's a continual problem - all the time," he said. "You are never going to get rid of them."

PRAIRIE DOG PLAGUE

Forest Guardians, an environmental group based in New Mexico, said the Gunnison's prairie dogs are dramatically decreasing. During the past 100 years, areas occupied by the species has decreased by 90 percent, according to the group.

"The Gunnison's prairie dog desperately needs federal protection if it is to be spared from extinction," Con Slobodchikoff, a prairie dog researcher, said in a written statement. "With the devastating impact of exotic plague, habitat destruction, and rampant shooting and poisoning, this species does not have the luxury of time."

Research has shown sylvanic plague is one of the Gunnison's prairie dog's biggest killers, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Mortality can exceed 99 percent.

Decker said prairie dogs on his land caught the plague in 1995. They completely disappeared and took several years to come back.

He wishes that would happen again.

A report the National Wildlife Federation commission in 2002 for the status of both the white-tailed prairie dog and the Gunnison's prairie dog pointed out how important the prairie dog is to other species, including the black-footed ferret and burrowing owl.

Between 1999 and 2002, Montezuma County had one of the highest counts of Gunnison's prairie dogs in the state, just behind Archuleta County with an estimated 15,978 acres of prairie dogs and Costilla County with an estimated 14,948 acres, according to a survey by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Montezuma County has an estimated 12,223 acres.

"They are everywhere," Decker said.

PARKS AND PRAIRIE DOGS

Chris Burkett, former Cortez Parks and Recreation director for 30 years, said he has had his fair share of battles with the burrow-digging rodent, especially when the city established Centennial Park and Parque De Vida.

Both parks covered vacant lots that had a fair amount of prairie dogs.

Burkett said the city has a permit to kill prairie dogs and has tried several methods, including gas, traps and smoke bombs. Burkett said at one point they even tried to use tractor exhaust to push them out.

The city eventually won the turf war against prairie dogs once the parks were established. If the parks are kept watered, the animals generally stay away.

"If you keep your ground irrigated, they don't come in," Burkett said.

Burkett laughed about the animals being added to the endangered species list.

"They don't seem endangered down here," he said.

If prairie dogs are added to the list, it is still important to keep them off city land, Burkett said.

"You can just imagine if someone stepped in one (prairie dog hole) and broke an ankle," Burkett said.

Reach Shannon Livick at shannonl@cortezjournal.com.

 
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