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Management Conflicts: Prairie Dogs and Irrigated Agriculture

Prairie dog conservation efforts and management difficulties in agricultural areas

Protection of prairie dogs and associated species, such as burrowing owls, is essential to maintaining healthy, functioning ecosystems on natural lands owned and managed by the City of Boulder. The City of Boulder has a long history of conserving prairie dogs and preserving extensive prairie dog colonies, helping in part 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 minimize lethal control of prairie dogs.

However, high abundance of prairie dogs in irrigated open space agricultural fields can lead to soil erosion, impact the availability of irrigation water, and reduce crop productivity and the viability of farms and ranches. Current wildlife monitoring has indicated that some OSMP irrigated agricultural lands have the highest levels of prairie dog occupation since the department began mapping prairie dog colonies in 1996. This, in turn, makes it difficult for the city to fulfill specific open space agricultural purposes in the Boulder City Charter. The city charter specifically requires OSMP to preserve city open space’s "agricultural uses and land suitable for agricultural production."

Relocation challenges 

While the city conducts prairie dog relocations – including recent efforts to remove prairie dogs from development sites, city parks and OSMP agricultural lands – relocations are logistically complicated and expensive. Those challenges include:

  • OSMP currently has more than 1,050 acres of irrigable agricultural land that overlaps with prairie dog occupation. But 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 per year.
  • 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 these grasslands poor choices for relocating prairie dogs.  
  • Open space relocation sites must also meet specific standards to obtain a relocation permit from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
  • 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. 

How does the City of Boulder manage prairie dogs?

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.  

Other city plans and policies – including the Wildlife Protection Ordinance, the Urban Wildlife Management Plan and Open Space and Mountain Parks’ Grassland Ecosystem Management Plan – also strive to strike a balance between protecting and maintaining healthy, thriving prairie dog populations and safeguarding natural communities and other land uses that do not thrive with prairie dog occupation.

  • Open Space and Mountain Parks Master Plan pdf: The OSMP Master Plan, accepted and adopted by the Boulder City Council in September 2019, has a Tier 1 strategy related to the management of agricultural lands occupied by prairie dogs. Tier 1 Master Plan strategies are those that the department will focus on first, while scaling all other work to align with available funding. That strategy seeks to address conflicts between agriculture and prairie dogs" 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.
  • Prairire Dog Working GroupA city Prairie Dog Working Group (PDWG) – made up of 12 community members representing a variety of viewpoints – reviewed the city's prairie dog management policies and practices and made recommendations for changes to existing policies and new initiatives to help manage prairie dog colonies and habitats. In April and May, 2019, both the City Council and the city’s Open Space Board of Trustees approved city staff’s plan to implement many of the working group’s recommendations. The continuing high abundance of prairie dogs on the city’s northern agricultural properties was part of both the council’s and the OSBT’s discussion of the PDWG recommendations earlier this year. During those discussions, both the council and the OSBT gave OSMP direction to explore whether, when, and how additional prairie dog management tools might be effective to reduce impacts to city irrigable agricultural lands.  
  • Agricultural Resources Management Plan pdf: This plan, accepted and adopted by the City Council in 2017, seeks to decrease impacts to agricultural production from prairie dog occupation and to evaluate options better manage prairie dogs and agricultural conflicts. Strategies available for implementation within the existing policy framework include:

    • Re-applying the prairie dog colony management area designation criteria to agricultural lands to help evaluate and prioritize properties for removal.

    • Identifying process for rapid response restoration and recolonization prevention of agricultural properties when prairie dogs are removed, die off or are reduced in spatial extent.

    • Exploring changes to grazing regimes, vegetation restoration and non-native vegetation management techniques to encourage faster recovery of vegetation in potential relocation sites.

  • Grassland Ecosystem Management Plan pdf: It provides a framework to conserve grasslands and prairie dogs and their associates by establishing goals and objectives to measure success in prairie dog conservation and management.  It also includes criteria to guide relocation of prairie dogs to, from, and within the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) system and defines land management designations for every prairie dog colony mapped. The Grassland plan also includes strategies to help support sustainable agricultural operations and address conflicts between agriculture and prairie dogs. 

    The 2019 OSMP Master Plan, recently accepted and adopted by the Boulder City Council, provides direction for OSMP to update Grassland Management Ecosystem Management Plan and continue managing this important ecosystem by considering all elements and processes of natural systems rather than focusing on one species or attribute at a time.

  • Wildlife Protection Ordinance pdf: This ordinance prohibits anyone from using lethal control measures for prairie dogs without first having obtained a lethal-control permit from the city. For a permit to be issued, the landowner must satisfactorily demonstrate that all non-lethal options for managing prairie dogs on a site were considered and were found not feasible. This municipal code applies to the city itself and all city lands even if they are owned in county jurisdiction.
  • Urban Wildlife Management Plan (UWMP)It establishes a framework for making urban wildlife management decisions, and outlines a set of actions for long-term management of human-wildlife conflicts. It emphasizes humane, non-lethal control of prairie dogs whenever feasible.
  • Collaborative Conservation Plan: In 1996, the City of Boulder developed a habitat conservation plan to help protect prairie dogs. The department worked with a committee of farmers, rural residents, environmentalists, animal rights advocates, land managers and interested citizens to develop a set of goals for prairie dog management on OSMP. The plan sought to reduce the conflicts between prairie dogs and adjacent land uses by establishing a system of prairie dog habitat conservation areas throughout the OSMP land system.