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Prairie Dog Management
Prairie dog

Prairie Dog Management

Boulder County manages prairie dogs in a comprehensive way so prairie dogs thrive where appropriate on open space properties.

Management Plan

The goal of Boulder County is to preserve, protect, and enhance viable prairie dog populations on suitable grassland habitat.

The county adopted the Prairie Dog Habitat Element of the Grassland and Shrubland Management Policy in 1999. The plan was last updated in February 2022.

The plan strives to achieve wildlife habitat protection goals while also preserving agriculture and maintaining good neighbor relations. The plan reflects the values and vision of a broad cross-section of county residents, describes the main strategies for achieving the vision, and serves as a decision-making guide for property-specific management plans.

Three Categories

The plan divides areas within the county open space system into three categories:

  1. Habitat Conservation Areas (HCA): suitable prairie dog habitat
  2. Multiple Objective Areas (MOA): can support prairie dogs along with other activities such as trails, grazing, etc
  3. No Prairie Dog Areas (NPD): not appropriate prairie dog habitat by virtue of their land uses

The plan lays out the framework for maintaining appropriate habitat as well as parameters for removing prairie dogs from No Prairie Dog Areas. The plan also provides guidelines for relocating prairie dogs to maximize the chance of a successful relocation.

The plan is used to provide guidance to staff for day-to-day activities and can be used by the residents of the county to understand management activities over the long term.


Seasonal Moratorium on Lethal Control Lifted

On Feb. 10, the Board of County Commissioners approved staff’s recommendation to lift the seasonal moratorium on the lethal management of prairie dogs in No Prairie Dog areas. The change to Section 8.3.3 of the Prairie Dog Habitat Element of the Grassland and Shrubland Management Policy will result in less overall prairie dog mortality when compared to status quo management on NPD properties.

Annual Update Meetings

Each year Parks & Open Space holds a stakeholder meeting. The meeting is a chance for staff to update the public on prairie dog management on open space properties.

2021 Update Meeting

The 2021 annual public meeting on prairie dog management was held on Dec. 14 as a Zoom webinar. Staff discussed the variety of activities conducted in 2021 and how the department manages prairie dogs on open space properties, including agricultural lands. Public comment was accepted.

Staff also discussed changes proposed to Section 8.3.3 of the Prairie Dog Habitat Element of the Grassland and Shrubland Management Policy regarding the seasonal moratorium on lethal control as stated above.

The annual public meeting concerning prairie dog management on Boulder County Parks & Open Space properties was held on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Staff discussed the variety of activities conducted in 2020 and how the department managed prairie dogs on open space properties, including agricultural lands.

Boulder County Parks & Open Space hosted its annual public meeting concerning prairie dog management on Boulder County Parks & Open Space properties on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Staff were available to discuss the variety of activities conducted in 2019 and how the department manages prairie dogs on open space properties, including agricultural lands. Public comment was accepted. No changes were proposed to the Prairie Dog Habitat Element of the Grassland and Shrubland Management Policy.

Thank you to the Birds of Prey Foundation for bringing a live Red tailed hawk to the meeting!

On Dec. 18, 2018, Parks & Open Space hosted its annual public meeting concerning prairie dog management on Boulder County Parks & Open Space properties. Staff was available to discuss the variety of activities conducted in 2018 and how the department will address current challenges on agricultural lands. Policy changes were not considered at the meeting.

No Policy Changes

At the 2017 Update Meeting, staff presented a case for eliminating the March 1 through May 31 moratorium on lethal control in NPD areas. Upon further review, additional control can be obtained through staff efficiencies and increases that continue to target NPD sites without changing current policy. This strategy will be reviewed annually for effectiveness. Other measures may be necessary in the future.

Black-footed Ferret Reintroduction

One of the department’s long-term goals is the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets. The department already assists this program through some of its management actions, but reintroduction will require large, contiguous blocks of habitat with sizable prairie dog colonies and the cooperation of partners to make such a project come to fruition. To date, the wildlife staff efforts towards reintroduction of black-footed ferrets include plague mitigation on HCAs, annual colony mapping, and coordination with local partner agencies and national black-footed ferret managers. In the past three years, staff and contractors have relocated a total of 433 prairie dogs to the South County Grasslands on open space properties—one of the HCAs that could be ultimately eligible as a portion of a reintroduction site.

The 2017 update meeting was held on January 16, 2018.

In 2017, staff observed prairie dog colonies on a total of 3,191 acres of open space properties:

  • 1,171 on Habitat Conservation Areas
  • 1,341 acres on Multiple Objective Areas.
  • 680 acres on No Prairie Dog areas (less than 4% of our total NPD areas).

Staff presentations at the meeting this year highlighted management issues associated with restored grasslands, challenges to controlling prairie dogs in NPD areas, and the variety of programs which support prairie dog colonies in HCAs. Staff continues to fine tune an ecological model that will serve as a tool to indicate whether restored grasslands site can sustain prairie dog colonization. Staff expects the model to be available at the end of 2018.

Management Activities on NPD areas

The next portion of the meeting was devoted to management activities on NPD areas—the efforts to clear productive agricultural land of prairie dogs. The department conducted live trapping on seven (six NPDs and one MOA) properties and the 1,244 animals captured were sent to various programs that support the raptor rehabilitation center and the black-footed ferret facility, and plague research at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Staff relocated 84 prairie dogs to an HCA to enhance future sites for ferret reintroduction. The department also used approved, in-burrow lethal methods (carbon monoxide) to control prairie dogs on 31 NPD and six MOA properties that are leased for agricultural operations.

Policy Change Proposal

As part of this agricultural segment of the meeting, staff presented a case for eliminating the March 1 through May 31 moratorium on lethal control in NPD areas. The rationale for this proposal is twofold: it would result in the overall death of fewer animals, and it would allow staff members to more effectively control animals on properties where the goal is to completely remove them. A new public process will take place if staff decides to pursue this change with several opportunities for public input, including an open house, and presentations to the Parks & Open Space Advisory Committee (POSAC) and the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC).

Black-footed Ferret Reintroduction

The last staff presentation of the evening focused on the department’s efforts to increase and improve prairie dog colonies in HCAs. Large, contiguous blocks of habitat with sizable prairie dog colonies and the cooperation of partners are needed to make such a project come to fruition. To date, the wildlife staff efforts towards reintroduction of black-footed ferrets include plague mitigation on HCAs, annual colony mapping, and coordination with local partner agencies and national black-footed ferret managers. In the past three years, staff and contractors have relocated a total of 433 prairie dogs to the South County Grasslands on open space properties.

Public Comment

The public shared a wide variety of views and comments at the meeting:

  • Neighbors expressed disappointment that adjacent open space properties with prairie dogs have not been cleared, resulting in the spread of colonies onto their private lands and necessitating management activities that cost them time and money.
  • Agricultural producers shared the concern that NPD areas that include agricultural leases are not being cleared of prairie dogs, resulting in a decreased viability of those leases.
  • Concern about trapping and lethal control, especially in the amount and methods currently used.
  • As long as there is a need to increase numbers and occupancy in some HCAs, the county should refrain from any lethal control and solely relocate prairie dogs from NPDs to those sites.
  • Questions about the costs of various management activities including lethal control and comments that relocation efforts are costly.
  • Challenges of controlling prairie dogs on organic farms for producers since the county’s only approved lethal control methods would not qualify as organic methods.

Staff will consider these comments as it develops the annual plan for prairie dog management in 2018.

The 2016 update meeting was held on November 16, 2016.

Staff discussed changes to the plan that were approved earlier in the year on February 25, 2016.

Summary of Changes

  • Revisions to the vegetation relocation criteria
  • Extending the dates for prairie dog relocation one month from July 1 to October 15 annually
  • Excluding the use of Phostoxin (aluminum phosphide) for lethal control of prairie dogs

The 2015 update meeting was held on December 7, 2015.

Attendees submitted questions after the meeting. Answers to those questions are as follow.

When will Boulder County get Black-footed ferrets?
Boulder County Parks & Open Space does not currently have any areas that meet the US Fish and Wildlife Service requirements for the reintroduction of Black-footed ferrets. The staff is proposing to target 2020 for reintroduction. BCPOS is working with City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to achieve this goal.

Are there government programs for experimenting with plague management tools such as vaccines?
We are aware of testing being done on an oral vaccine for prairie dogs.. We expect that the oral vaccine may be available by 2017, and are committed to utilizing this method when it becomes available. This vaccine is being developed by USGS – National Wildlife Health Center.

Is there an alternative to the 30-day quarantine required for donating prairie dogs to the BFF program?
A 21-day quarantine is required to ensure that the Black-footed ferrets in the recovery program do not contract the sylvatic plague. Not all of the live delivered prairie dogs are quarantined; some are immediately euthanized at the facility, and frozen for future use.

Will translocations require quarantine if ferrets are reintroduced?
Our understanding is that if the “take” site is dusted with insecticide three weeks prior to removing prairie dogs for relocation, there is no need for a quarantine period.

Why do we have vegetation criteria for relocation?
Boulder County Parks & Open Space manages our properties for many objectives. On grasslands designated as Habitat Conservation Areas (HCAs) and selected for prairie dog reintroduction, it is our goal to develop and maintain a diverse and resilient grassland ecosystem that can support prairie dogs over the long-term as well as many other organisms native to the prairie grasslands. Vegetation criteria help us to maintain a diverse and hopefully resilient ecosystem that can do just that.

Why haven’t we relocated to the oldest of the restored grasslands yet?
The grassland restoration program was not designed to provide prairie dog relocation sites when conceived. At the time, the goals focused on restoring native prairie grasses, forbs, and shrubs. As with many restoration programs, we have learned a lot about grasslands and restoration processes since 1996.

The Prairie Dog Habitat Element identified a desire to see prairie dogs return to these restored grasslands, our staff proposed developing a tool for identifying restored grasslands that had become resilient enough to see the reintroduction of prairie dogs while remaining largely intact.

Until these tools are in place, we do not plan to allow prairie dogs on restored grasslands of any age. We do not plan to actively relocate prairie dogs onto any restored grasslands at this time, but once a property has been identified using our restoration tools, we will not remove prairie dogs that migrate onto these properties.

BCPOS hired Smith Environmental and Engineering to help formulate the criteria for restored grasslands. BCPOS plans to test these criteria throughout 2016.

View the Rock Creek Grasslands Management Plan

Will the new vegetation and restoration criteria improve the potential for relocation?
Under the current vegetation criteria, 25% of transects studied by BCPOS met the criteria originally approved in the Prairie Dog Habitat Element, but no sites as a whole qualified for relocation. Under the new criteria, a number of sites are now eligible for relocation efforts. We feel that adjusting these criteria has made relocation a real possibility and one that can be pursued responsibly in order to maintain grassland resiliency.

Do we still use poisons for the treatment of prairie dog colonies on No Prairie Dog Areas?
The BCPOS prairie dog program has elected to no longer use aluminum phosphide or “Phostoxin” on any properties. Instead, our program and our partners use either a Carbon-monoxide (CO) machine or CO cartridges to treat colonies in No Prairie Dog Areas. At the 2016 tenant training, BCPOS will inform tenants that phostoxin will no longer be permitted on Boulder County Parks & Open Space property. In addition we will be proposing an amendment to the Prairie Dog Habitat Element stating that aluminum phosphide will not be used on BCPOS properties.

Could BCPOS convert the treatment crew into a relocation crew?
Our prairie dog management crew has led relocation efforts in the past and will be the major contributor to any relocations in the future.

How many properties do we remove prairie dogs from in a year?
The number of properties varies based on where prairie dog colonies grow and the time required to manage the colonies each year. In 2015 the prairie dog management crew removed prairie dogs on 30 properties.

Do any private landowners have an interest in prairie dog conservation agreements?
We work closely with property owners adjacent to our NPD, MOA, and HCA properties. While we have not received requests for such agreements in the past, we would certainly pursue such agreements if there was interest on the part of the private landowner.

Will relocation become annual?
Not necessarily. According to the Prairie Dog Habitat Element, relocation can only occur in areas of HCAs with prairie dog populations below 15% occupancy. These areas must meet the vegetation criteria and have been historically occupied by prairie dogs. Therefore, it is difficult to predict how often relocations will occur.

When will BCPOS determine locations for 2016 relocations?
Until the vegetation criteria for relocation are updated, no areas on HCAs within the BCPOS system meet the relocation requirements. Once they are updated through public hearings with POSAC and the Board of County Commissioners, we expect to relocate to eligible sites on the South County Grasslands in 2016. Efforts to identify relocation sites on our HCAs are on-going.

When will restoration criteria go into effect?
Since the final draft of the grassland restoration protocols has not been submitted, we cannot accurately identify a date for when they will go into effect. However, we do plan to field test the protocols in 2016.

How will we open up burrows on restored or “recovered” sites?
One of the criteria for relocation is existing or historic prairie dog colonization. Therefore, if possible we will use existing burrows. However, in many cases, over the time required to see resilient vegetation on these sites, burrows entrances fill in. Therefore, our staff will pursue auguring to open identifiable burrows, in the hopes that the burrow network attached to these burrow entrances is still intact.

Why can’t we relocate prairie dogs into other counties?
Colorado law requires that the county commissioners of both the sending and receiving counties approve relocations across county lines. Such relocations are rarely pursued for that reason.

How will climate change impact policy decisions?
BCPOS works to manage our lands adaptively; regularly monitoring the impacts of management and policy decisions to improve our management. Climate change may have a wide variety of impacts on Boulder County and we will seek to flexibly manage our lands to meet those impacts. The Boulder County Climate Change Preparedness Plan provides guidance to county agencies on how to pursue adaptive management in the face of climate change.

Why do we have agricultural land in areas appropriate for prairie dogs?
The agricultural land in Boulder County has been in agriculture for more than 100 years. When we purchase properties we assess the current use of the land and interact with the seller to understand their interests. If the land is currently in agriculture, on valuable agricultural land, or the seller requests that it remain agricultural land we manage it to remain in agriculture in most cases. This is in accordance with the expressed goal of the Comprehensive Plan to maintain agriculture in Boulder County.

In the case of about 2,000 acres of land across the county, we have decided over time that the land would be more suitable as native grassland and we undertake an effort to restore these lands to native grassland. These areas may be suitable for prairie dogs when they are deemed to be resilient and “restored”.

Prairie Dogs seem fine in current colonies and on marginal land, why do we concern ourselves with restoration?
Prairie dog colonies are located throughout the plains region of the county and many are located on marginal properties in road medians and other such undesirable locations. However, BCPOS is charged with managing the entire ecosystem on our properties not just for one species. Our goal is to support prairie dog populations on properties that can support a resilient ecosystem that supports a wide variety of organisms.

What is the oldest colony in the county?
BCPOS does not maintain a database of colony age across the county. We have been monitoring prairie dog colonies on our properties since the 1980s (mapping since 1997) and we are aware of colonies that existed prior to that decade.

Can you make the vegetation monitoring results available to the public?
The proposed vegetation criteria are available on our website. Once the proposals are prepared for presentation to POSAC and the county commissioners, we will provide the formal proposal as a memo to both bodies on our website. We will also post the data used to develop and test the proposed changes.

As Boulder County prepares to open land up for prairie dogs in 2016 what is the actual number of dogs, or acreage, you plan to relocate/make available?
As per the Prairie Dog Element, Appendix I: Relocation Methods and Procedures

  • The minimum size of a relocation area is not pre-determined, but rather will be considered, among other criteria, by BCPOS staff on a case-by-case basis.
  • The minimum number of prairie dogs to be relocated during each event shall be >60 (Robinette et al. 1995), although greater numbers may increase relocation success (Hoogland 2006; Dullem et al. 2005; Griffith et al. 1989; Roe & Roe 2003; Meaney 2001), particularly at areas without an existing active colony (Robinette et al 1995).
  • A target release number of 4-7 prairie dogs per available burrow will be followed (Shier 2006), with the assumption that additional burrows will be constructed by the colony following release.

Given these criteria, acreage and prairie dog numbers will vary by relocation effort. There will be a minimum of 60 animals relocated. As for additional numbers, this will depend on the site characteristics (I.e.- how many open burrows are available?)

How many prairie dogs per acre are allowed, assuming a relocation actually occurs?
As per our relocation criteria, we base our numbers on how many burrows are open. Our goal is to place 4-7 prairie dogs per burrow (depending on gender/age parameters).

All proposed relocation efforts must be reviewed by CPW, and this review includes site assessments and approval/disapproval of proposed numbers of animals.

It was indicated by Susan Spaulding that as the land becomes available, prairie dogs currently on BC land (either open space, AG, or abutting AG) would take priority over dogs in eminent danger on private land. If this is correct I would assume you have an idea of the number of dogs, and their current location, that would be allowed to be relocated on these newly open lands. If so, what are the numbers and the locations.

We will prioritize removal of prairie dogs for relocation from NPD properties. At this time we do not know which exact NPD properties will be prioritized for the removal and relocation efforts.

The number of prairie dogs to be relocated will depend on the relocation site conditions, but will be >60 per relocation effort..

What would be the anticipated time frame for these relocations?
BCPOS will conduct relocations starting July 1, and ending no later than September 15, annually, as needed. By starting relocation efforts no sooner than July, juvenile and female survivorship is maximized (Jacquert et al. 1986). No relocation will be conducted after mid-September to allow for burrow acclimation and body conditioning for reduced winter foraging (Coffeen & Pederson 1986).

Once the relocation of the dogs from BC lands is complete will you open up land to prairie dogs in eminent danger from development of private land?
Our Prairie Dog Habitat Element requires us to prioritize Parks and Open Space lands for relocation. However, in the case that we have accomplished our relocation goals (removal of animals from NPD properties is complete), we will consider animals from non-County owned lands.

How many prairie dogs would you need to have to introduce the BFF and what data are those numbers based on?
The USFWS service does not identify a number. Instead they require 1,500 acres of active prairie dog colonies on contiguous lands to support a minimum of 30 adult ferrets (20 females and 10 males). The acreage number of 1,500 is based on a home range of an adult female ferret being 75 acres. These 1,500 acres of colonies are required to be active, and as research has shown that prairie dog colonies in Boulder County are more densely populated than in less bounded areas, we foresee no issues with having enough numbers of prairie dogs within our colonies to support ferret predation levels.

Of note: Ferrets typically hunt every 3 days or so. An adult ferret may therefore prey on 2-3 prairie dogs per week.

Does Boulder County only intend to focus on 1,500 acres for the BFF?
BCPOS intends to relocate to Habitat Conservation Areas in an effort to achieve the required acreage of active prairie dog colonies to support ferret reintroduction. Of note, we will be working closely with City of Boulder OSMP in the south central part of the county. Only by combining our land base do we have enough colony acreage to achieve the 1,500 acres needed.

For the purpose of long term survival of the BFF it would seem that Boulder County would need to begin re-population of prairie dogs now to be able to determine if the colonies are stable and healthy prior to BFF introduction, what consideration if being made for this?
Based on considerable review of available research, we will not relocate during the winter months, as this limits success. (See below).

As outlined in our Prairie Dog Habitat Element, Appendix I-

BCPOS will conduct relocations starting July 1, and ending no later than September 15, annually, as needed. By starting relocation efforts no sooner than July, juvenile and female survivorship is maximized (Jacquert et al. 1986). No relocation will be conducted after mid-September to allow for burrow acclimation and body conditioning for reduced winter foraging (Coffeen & Pederson 1986).

How many individual ferrets do you plan to introduce?
At this time, USFWS considers a minimum release number of 20 adult females and 10 adult males per reintroduction effort. This is the minimum number to ensure the best chance of establishing a self-sustaining population.

How many acres are currently in the Open Space system that could take the BFF right now?
There are no sites currently appropriate for ferret reintroduction. We have no contiguous habitat with 1,500 acres of active prairie dog colonies.

Is it correct that Boulder County previously agreed to set aside 5,000 acres for prairie dogs, and currently only 1/2 of that land is actually occupied by prairie dogs?
BCPOS has designated 19,290 acres as HCA. However, within this acreage, only a proportion is suitable for prairie dog occupancy, based on their habitat requirements (for example, steep slopes, rocky outcrops, water bodies, forested lands are not suitable).

BCPOS proposed a goal of 5,000 acres of suitable habitat acres within Habitat Conservation Areas. Currently, the suitable acreage within designated HCAs is 3,326. Our goal is to acquire the additional land necessary to achieve 5,000 acres of suitable habitat with the addition of Dowe Flats adjacent to Rabbit Mountain. We will also add acreage to our suitable habitat totals when Rock Creek Grasslands are fully restored and deemed resilient enough for prairie dog occupancy. Our model parameters for what is determined as “non-suitable” are listed in Appendix E and are based on extensive research review as well as internal management decisions to preserve certain areas, such as rare plant associations.

When was the vegetation criteria in Boulder County first introduced? What year did Smith Ecological present these ideas to Boulder County?
Our vegetation criteria were developed using criteria originally developed the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks. We changed them to reflect our interest in relocation and the reality of grasslands on our properties. We proposed these criteria in 2012 and included the requirement of assessing the criteria for three years before making any further necessary changes. The most recent proposals are the result of that three-year assessment.

Smith Environmental and Engineering was hired to address another question posed during the update of the Prairie Dog Habitat Element. BCPOS has been restoring grasslands since 1996 and since that time we have been searching for scientifically tested ways to identify when a restored grassland is resilient enough to be more lightly managed and to see the return of prairie dog colonies. There is no current published scientific literature or technical guidance available to reference for this specific question. Smith was hired in 2015 to help our staff develop protocols for performing that assessment.

It is the understanding of many prairie dogs advocates that Smith Environmental is in the business of exterminating prairie dogs. If this is correct does it not seem a conflict of interest to hire Smith Environmental to dictate grassland policy?
Boulder County Parks and Open Space released a public Request for Proposals seeking a consultant qualified to develop protocols for identifying when a grassland is “restored” to a level that means it is resilient enough to weather the impacts of drought, prairie dogs, and other impacts. The request for proposals was released widely, and staff spoke directly with consultants and academics seeking those interested in tackling the subject. The selected consultant was able to provide both an adequate proposal and the qualifications necessary to address the interests of our ecologists, biologists, and rangeland managers. Our staff was as selective as possible and would not have selected a consultant that they did not feel could provide the service in a professional and comprehensive manner.

Are any other counties, that you know of, in the US implementing these policies prior to establishing prairie dogs colonies on the land?
We studied the policies of various county and municipal governments during the development of the Prairie Dog Habitat Element. Our relocation criteria were developed using a template developed by the City of Boulder and in consultation with existing literature. At this time, there are no nationally-accepted standards for identifying a, “restored” grassland. BCPOS is leading the field in this effort. We plan to field test and verify all protocols proposed by our consultant and will not implement the protocols unless they meet with our professional satisfaction.

How many actual acres of potential prairie dog land was added with the recent change in the vegetation criteria? If none, at what time will you consider loosening the vegetation criteria rules further?
The vegetation criteria have not been applied in the manner suggested by the question to all our HCAs. For the two properties that we studied, the Lindsay and Zaharias properties, the following changes in acreage were observed:

  • Lindsay: 27 acres historically occupied
  • 0 acres met the current vegetation criteria
  • 21.5 acres meet the proposed new criteria
  • Zaharias: 57 acres historically occupied
  • 14.7 acres met the current vegetation criteria
  • 42.3 acres meet the proposed new criteria

Other relocation criteria besides the vegetation criteria must also be met for an area to qualify for prairie dog relocation. We identify appropriate areas for relocation and then use the vegetation criteria to test whether the identified areas can meet the criteria. Because of the intensive nature of testing the criteria at identified sites, it would be extremely difficult to test every acre of identified HCA.

Does Boulder County map prairie dog colonies/numbers on both county owned and private land? If yes, what are those numbers?
BCPOS maps prairie dog colony acres on BCPOS land only. We have access to the mapping done by the municipalities in Boulder County as well. BCPOS land contains 2,059 acres of prairie dog colonies as of the end of 2015. We have information on the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks and Parks and Recreation mapping effort. In 2015, they mapped 3,031 acres of active colonies.

Is Boulder County required to maintain a certain population of prairie dogs within its borders?
There is no requirement at the local, state, or federal level to maintain a number of acres or individuals. Our goal with management on MOA and HCA acres is to allow colonies to grow and change with as little management as possible.

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