Inquire Boulder

Prairie Dogs

Prairie dogs live in and around Boulder, on open space and on private property.

How does the city protect prairie dogs and their habitat?
The city owns and manages more 40,000 acres of land outside the city dedicated to open space and "greenbelt" protection. Approximately 5,000 of those acres are specifically set aside as prairie dog habitat conservation areas (HCAs).

What organization manages prairie dogs and other wildlife?
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) controls many aspects of prairie dog management, such as relocation, rehabilitation and hunting. The management of prairie dog habitat, however, is the responsibility of the landowners where prairie dogs live. Boulder has chosen to develop regulations and policies to guide the management of prairie dogs in the city and on city-owned lands.

Why can't prairie dogs that pose conflicts with parks and other land uses be relocated to another site?
There are few sites available to receive relocated prairie dogs. In existing colonies, there is already little or no room for expansion - even in the absence of new prairie dogs being introduced from relocation projects. In addition to 1,500 acres of prairie dogs within HCAs, there are an additional 2,500 acres of prairie dogs inhabiting other Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) lands.

Why can't the prairie dogs be moved back to where they came from?
In some cases, prairie dogs have moved into unsuitable habitats because there was no room for the colonies to grow. Prairie dogs reintroduced to full colonies would almost certainly be killed by the prairie dogs with established territories. Even in situations where colonies are not full, it is likely that prairie dogs would continue dispersal into areas of conflict unless other management practices, such as barrier fences, were used. If prairie dogs are removed, the habitat is changed to such a degree that prairie dogs usually don't have the opportunity or ability to reestablish themselves.

Why can't prairie dogs be relocated elsewhere in Colorado?
In 1999, state legislature passed a law that prohibits the release of prairie dogs in another county without permission of the county commissioners of both the sending and receiving sites. Since prairie dogs are considered "pests" by the state, county commissions are generally not receptive to the release of prairie dogs.

Why can't the city buy more land for the prairie dogs?
Since the focus of the Open Space and Mountain Parks department is ecosystem management and balancing broad open space values, the department has not and is not likely to purchase lands solely for prairie dogs.

What is the status of the black-tailed prairie dog as a species?
The black-tailed prairie dog receives no protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. In Colorado, the Colorado Natural Heritage Program lists the black-tailed prairie dog as vulnerable to extirpation. CPW identifies the black-tailed prairie dog as a species with moderate and stable populations, and as a species of most concern.

Why are active prairie dog colonies important to protect?
Prairie dogs create local conditions with a diversity of plants, animals and soils that are distinct from the surrounding prairie. When the landscape does not suit them, they change it to make the land safer and more comfortable in their homes. The ecological health and diversity of grasslands depends upon a patchwork of prairie dog colonies, grasslands, wetlands, riparian (creek-side) areas, and other features, creating many habitats. The prairie dog-modified landscape attracts a distinct group of animals, including burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, hawks and eagles.

Who has ultimate responsibility for keeping prairie dogs off private land where they are not wanted, especially if they are coming from public land?
The state government has management responsibility for wildlife in Colorado. In the City of Boulder, individual landowners may choose to allow prairie dogs to inhabit their property or to control prairie dogs in accordance with state and local regulations. The City of Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks Department has a policy of working with neighbors and property owners to take reasonable action to limit the spread of prairie dogs onto adjacent properties.

How concerned do I need to be about getting the plague from prairie dogs? How can I protect myself and my family from it?
Plague is transmitted by fleas, not by prairie dogs, so the best strategy is to avoid getting bitten by fleas. Don't venture into prairie dog colonies or approach their burrows. Never get close to or touch a wild rodent (squirrel, chipmunk, prairie dog, etc.). Don't approach or handle dead rodents. Never feed wildlife. When animals come up to you, they could transmit an infected flea.

Dogs and cats can pick up fleas from prairie dog colonies and may carry the fleas into your neighborhood or home. Keep your pets away from prairie dog colonies or any dead rodent. Your pet could pick up an infected flea and transmit it to you. It's illegal for dogs to chase or harass wildlife in Boulder and allowing your dog to do so could result in a fine.

What has happened to the prairie dog population and its historical range?
During the past 100 years, much of the historic range of the black-tailed prairie dog has been converted to food production for humans, mostly for cattle pasture and grain fields. Expanding urban areas, especially the rapidly growing Front Range in Colorado, have seen housing and commercial development replace grasslands.Out of an estimated 100 million acres of former black-tailed prairie dog colonies, about 2 percent remains.

Around the turn of the century, the U.S. government sponsored prairie dog poisoning programs to reduce competition with livestock and farmers. This program, which continues today, peaked in Colorado in 1921, when approximately 80,000 acres of prairie dog colonies were poisoned.

Why is there competition with development or livestock?
Prairie dogs compete with livestock for food, clipping vegetation to maintain a view of their surroundings and eating the same grasses that would otherwise be available for cattle and horses. On farmlands, prairie dogs can decimate or destroy a crop of alfalfa, grains or hay.

How are prairie dog burrows laid out and maintained?
Prairie dogs excavate elaborate systems of burrows in heavily grazed, flat prairie lands and create colonies comprised of thousands of prairie dogs. The burrows are easily identified because of the large mound of dirt surrounding the entrance, providing a vantage point to spot approaching predators, as well as flood protection.

The burrow system is set up as follows:

  • a listening post chamber just under the surface and set off from the main burrow;
  • a separate chamber that is used as a toilet and emptied periodically; and
  • a nesting/sleeping chamber lined with dried grass.

The nesting chambers are often elevated from the bottom of the tunnels so that the prairie dogs can remain dry when water flows into the burrow entrance.

What is the family structure of prairie dogs?
Prairie dogs live in family groups with as many as 40 individuals, known as coteries, and have an elaborate system of communication.

What plans are in place to preserve land and dependent species?
Conservation biologists are concerned that other species dependent upon prairie dogs may follow in what has been described as an "ecological train wreck." In 1996, the Open Space and Mountain Parks department developed a plan to reduce conflicts between prairie dogs and adjacent land uses by establishing a system of prairie dog HCAs throughout OSMP lands.

The HCA designs were modified for the specific requirements of prairie dogs, such as soil type, slope, vulnerability to plague and barriers to dispersal. The requirements of the species that depend upon prairie dog colonies (burrowing owls, raptors and badgers) were also taken into consideration when developing the HCA design. The resulting system includes approximately 4,600 acres in seven designated HCAs.

What do prairie dogs eat and how does it impact the landscape?
Prairie dogs feed on a variety of vegetation, including grasses and, to a lesser extent, seeds and insects. Grasses and other vegetation are clipped close to the ground to allow for a greater range of sight.

Burrowing and feeding prairie dogs affect prairie ecosystems by:

  • modifying the physical structure and nutrient composition of the soil;
  • causing changes in plant species composition and density by clipping foliage and roots; and
  • providing breeding or resting sites for a variety of other species.

How do prairie dogs impact open space, agriculture and urban environments?
Due to the dispersal activities of prairie dogs and the significant lack of predators in the urban environment, prairie dogs are often in conflict with urban land uses. Prairie dogs:

  • can cause costly damage to agricultural crops, landscaping, earthen dams, airports and golf courses;
  • often settle along the edges of preserved open space and on small, fragmented parcels where development has boxed in or pushed out the colony over time; and
  • move from one site to adjacent properties and forage on lawns and established landscaping.

In addition to causing damage, prairie dogs can be a safety hazard. Many of the prairie dog colonies within Boulder are located in transportation right-of-ways. As the colonies expand, they sometimes disperse across roads, causing potential hazards to themselves and motorists.

What are the requirements for prairie dog management and control?
City ordinance requires landowners to obtain a permit from the city before using any form of lethal control on prairie dogs. In order to obtain a permit, the landowner must demonstrate the following:

  • a reasonable effort has been made to relocate the prairie dogs to another site;
  • the most humane method of lethal control possible will be used;
  • the land on which the prairie dogs are located will be developed within 15 months of the date of the application, a principal use of the land will be adversely impacted in a significant manner by the presence of prairie dogs on the site, or an established landscaping or open space feature will be adversely impacted by the prairie dogs; and
  • the landowner has an adequate plan designed to prevent the reentry of prairie dogs onto the land after the prairie dogs are lawfully removed.

Download the Prairie Dog Lethal Control Permit Application Form.

What is the waiting period for a permit?
The waiting period after the submission of an application is a minimum of three to five months. If the city determines that relocation alternatives exist during or after the initial three-to-five month period, it may delay issuing the permit for an additional 12 months in order to allow relocation to occur.

What is the cost of a permit?
The basic administrative fee for a permit is $1,500. An applicant for a prairie dog lethal control permit must also pay a fee of $1,200 per acre of active prairie dogs habitat lost, prorated for any partial acres of lost habitat.

May I destroy a prairie dog burrow?
No person may damage a prairie dog burrow unless at least one of the following circumstances exist:

  • the burrow is uninhabited.;
  • the burrow is on the property of single-family residence; or
  • the burrow was damaged in connection with an ongoing project or program that was pre-approved by the city manager.

If you have development plans for your property that may be in conflict with prairie dogs on the site or if you have any questions about prairie dogs lethal control permits, visit the Urban Wildlife website. If prairie dogs are causing nuisance problems for you or the uses of your property, do not attempt to poison or kill the animals. Please call Urban Wildlife Conservation Coordinator Val Matheson at 303-441-3004.

What are the requirements for relocation of prairie dogs?
Landowners must provide the city with at least 20 days advance written notice of the initiation of the prairie dog relocation.

Boulder's prairie dog protection history
The history of Boulder's efforts to protect prairie dogs through legislation began in 1999. Concerns about the protection of prairie dogs arose from several incidents in Boulder and in some surrounding communities where large colonies of prairie dogs were poisoned. On Jan. 18, 2000, City Council adopted an ordinance prohibiting the poisoning of prairie dogs. The ordinance was amended on July 3, 2001 to prohibit destruction of active prairie dog burrows.

In 2003, the Colorado Department of Agriculture notified the City of Boulder that the city's ordinance prohibiting prairie dog poisoning was preempted by state law regarding commercial pesticide applicators. The state's position was that the City of Boulder's ordinances needed to be either repealed or amended.

City staff has since worked on revising the city's approach to the protection of prairie dogs. A study session was held with City Council in February 2004. At that session, Council endorsed the following "six-step" decision-making protocol for managing prairie dogs on private and public property.

  1. Minimize conflicts through non-removal methods.
  2. Remove prairie dogs on only a portion of a site.
  3. Evaluate the potential for relocation.
  4. Evaluate the potential for donation to animal recovery programs (which can include trapping and lethal control or live transfer).
  5. Evaluate the use of trapping and lethal control through carbon dioxide chambers.
  6. If the above steps are not feasible, apply poisons (fumitoxins) to the burrows.

On Jan. 18, 2005, City Council adopted a final wildlife protection ordinance.

How can keep informed about wildlife topics in the City of Boulder?

To sign up for email updates, select the City of Boulder Email Lists link and then select "Wildlife Plan" from the dropdown menu.

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