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City to Review How It Manages Irrigated Lands With a High Abundance of Prairie Dogs

The City of Boulder will begin an expedited review of how it manages irrigated agricultural fields and prairie dogs later this month and will seek input on ways it can foster healthy soils and promote sustainable agricultural land uses.

The preservation of agricultural uses and lands suitable for agricultural production is a specific open space purpose in the city charter.

Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) will host an open house Wednesday, Oct. 23, where community members can learn about the challenges and share ideas on managing irrigated agricultural fields north of Jay Road currently occupied by extensive prairie dog populations.

Prairie dogs are essential to maintaining healthy, functioning ecosystems on natural lands owned and managed by the City of Boulder. Current open space plans, including the recently approved OSMP Master Plan, seek to maintain the viability of agricultural operations by reducing impacts from prairie dogs on irrigated lands while supporting ecologically sustainable prairie dog populations across the larger landscape. However, recent and abundant expansion of prairie dogs into city open space irrigated fields have:

  • Highlighted a conflict between city prairie dog management practices and viable open space agricultural operations.
  • Contributed to soil degradation and loss, affecting OSMPs’ ability to fulfill agricultural open space purposes outlined in the Boulder City Charter.
  • Limited OSMP’s ability to implement soil carbon farming and climate-mitigation practices. Irrigated lands represent the best opportunity for soil-based carbon capture on city open space lands.

OSMP currently has more than 1,050 acres of irrigable agricultural land that overlaps with prairie dog occupation and, in some areas north of Boulder, prairie dogs occupy the majority of irrigated fields. Given cost, time, contractor availability and permitting requirements, past relocation projects have only been able to accommodate the removal of up to 70 acres of prairie dog colonies each year. Recently, the Boulder City Council and the Open Space Board of Trustees (OSBT) acknowledged that it may be infeasible to address large prairie dog populations on agricultural lands in a timely or economical fashion by current non-lethal practices alone.

City council also provided direction to help OSMP achieve agricultural open space purposes in the city charter by identifying potential management actions, such as conducting key-line plowing and adding soil amendments. The city also will consider when, where and how lethal control of prairie dogs might be used to address this challenge.

Open house to begin community-engagement process
The open house will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 23, at OSMP’s Hub Administration Building at 2520 55th St., Boulder 80301. It will provide community members an opportunity to share their interests and ideas for this complex management topic and to learn about: 

  • Updates on ongoing prairie dog management efforts and implementation of Prairie Dog Working Group recommendations. These updates will begin about 5:30 p.m.
  • Agricultural uses on the city’s northern open space lands and city efforts to preserve healthy and sustainable agricultural operations.
  • Challenges the city faces in managing prairie dogs in and around agricultural areas, especially when there is a high abundance of prairie dog colonies.

Community members who cannot make the meeting are invited to submit comments through an online questionnaire that will be available from Wednesday, Oct. 23, through midnight, Wednesday, Nov. 6, at http://bit.ly/Expedited-Review.

Community input will shape management options
OSMP staff will consider community feedback from the open house, along with online input, to develop draft management recommendations that the department will present to the public in January. Community input on those initial staff recommendations will help OSMP to refine them further. These recommendations are expected to be presented to the city’s OSBT in March of next year.

Prairie dog conservation efforts and management conflict in agricultural areas 
For decades, the City of Boulder has conserved prairie dogs and preserved extensive prairie dog colonies, helping to make the city’s natural lands one of the best areas in Colorado for nesting birds of prey and other wildlife. City ordinances and management practices in recent years have sought to maximize ecological function and to minimize lethal control of prairie dogs.

However, high abundance of prairie dogs in irrigated open space agricultural fields has led to likely soil erosion, impacted the availability of irrigation water, and reduced crop productivity and the viability of farms and ranches. This, in turn, makes it difficult for the city to fulfill specific open space agricultural purposes in the Boulder City Charter. Those purposes require OSMP to preserve Boulder open space’s “agricultural uses and lands suitable for agricultural production.”

The challenges associated with relocating prairie dogs

While the city conducts prairie dog relocations – such as efforts to remove prairie dogs from development sites, city parks and OSMP agricultural lands – they are logistically complicated and expensive. Finding suitable relocation sites is also challenging. There are many plant communities, such as xeric tallgrass prairie and other rare plant communities, and animal species like grasshopper sparrows that do not thrive where there are active prairie dog colonies, making sensitive grasslands poor choices for relocating prairie dogs. 

Open space relocation sites also must meet specific standards to obtain a relocation permit from the state. OSMP’s ability to relocate prairie dogs is further constrained by neighboring landowner concerns about relocating prairie dogs near their property, and state law makes it difficult to move prairie dogs to available sites outside of Boulder County.

Recent community efforts to review, update management practices
A Prairie Dog Working Group (PDWG) – made up of 12 community members representing a variety of viewpoints – recently reviewed the city’s prairie dog management policies,  practices, made recommendations for changes to existing policies and identified new initiatives to help manage prairie dog colonies and habitats. In April and May, both the City Council and the OSBT approved city staff’s plan to implement many of the working group’s recommendations.

The continuing high numbers of prairie dogs on the city’s northern agricultural properties were part of both council and OSBT’s discussions of PDWG recommendations earlier this year. During those discussions, both the council and the OSBT gave OSMP direction to explore through an expedited process whether, when and how additional prairie dog management tools might be effective in reducing impacts to city irrigated agricultural lands. 

For more information, please visit bit.ly/Expedited-Review.

Published: Oct. 8, 2019  

Media Contacts: 

Phillip Yates, Open Space and Mountain Parks, 303-349-2438
Bryan Rachal, Deputy Communications Director, 303-441-3155