Earth & Science

One Man’s Pet is Another Man’s Pest

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As Boulder County prairie dogs continue to grow in numbers, there is a risk they will cause serious desertification to Boulder City grasslands. Professor Timothy Seastedt speaks of “dust bowls.”

SAND. Looking out on the Teller Farm in east Boulder, ecologist Timothy Seastedt explains why a little patch of land, transformed from grassland to “dust bowl,” could very well be a glimpse into the near future. Spread out across the area are dozens of low sand hills marking the burrows of a prairie dog colony.

The Black-Tailed prairie dog. Photo: Chadh, Fkickr, CC.

The voracious prairie dogs, confined by development and roads, have turned patches of Boulder Open Space into what is best described as little deserts. And now, there is mounting evidence that the prairie dogs are developing immunity to the one thing that has kept their populations in check: recurrent epidemics of plague.

“Out of plagues,” Timothy Seastedt remarks, “the prairie dogs will eat themselves to death.”

In pre-colonial times, Seastedt explains, the Front Range was rich with prairie dogs. At that time, however, the prairie dogs left their colonies for new habitats before eating away the natural vegetation to its roots—in fact they spurred a richer biodiversity as they moved across the land. Today, with high population density along the Front Range and with land areas neatly delineated into farming plots, the prairie dogs are confined to smaller areas and often have no where to migrate. The result is that they will stay until there is nothing left to eat.

The Teller Farm is a good example. Today, with approximately 98 percent of the prairie dog population killed in an August 2010 outbreak of plague, the Teller Farm habitat is a ghost colony. And according to Seastedt, this should allow vegetation to regrow.

Up until now, however, managers of grasslands preserved as part of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks system have depended on epidemics of plague to naturally preserve ecosystems in prairie dog areas. And this may soon prove less effective as the prairie dogs adapt themselves to the plagues.

From 1994 to 1996 a series of plague epidemics killed virtually all of Boulder County’s prairie dog colonies. In a 2008 outbreak, however, only about 98 percent of the county’s prairie dog population was killed. Prairie dog colonies rebuild as the few survivors produced new offspring and over the long term, the result will be a greater resistance to the disease.

According to Seastedt, the 2008 plague came as a relief to city and county land managers who had grown increasingly uneasy as the numbers of prairie dogs rapidly rebuilt after the previous plague outbreaks. “You could almost hear their sighs,” he says, when the plague broke out in 2008 and solved the problem once again.

Boulder County is hardly being transformed into a desert landscape. What is at stake, however, is the careful balance between preserving the prairie dog while simultaneously taking care of the natural vegetation and ecosystems of Boulder County. According to Seastedt, developing sustainable land management plans is the prudent step forward, but even with Boulder city annual spending on prairie dog management reaching $500.000, the challenge of finding that balance is still very much at the center of things.

Prairie dogs are loved by some and hated by others. Timothy Seastedt, however, seems to encompass both those views. “If the surviving colonies don’t get the plague, we will see the erosion already this winter”, he says shortly before spotting a lone survivor at the Teller Farm colony. “Oh there is one, look at that guy.”

Written by Earth & Science

September 12, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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