It’s a race against hibernation, and the fate of more than 1,000 prairie dogs hangs in the balance.
A Phoenix-based investment company is scheduled to begin grading an 80-acre lot of land near Soliere Avenue and Country Club Drive in the spring.
Now, ecologists and volunteers are scrambling to save one of Flagstaff’s largest urban prairie dog colonies. Every day the group can be seen on site, trying to catch and relocate as many prairie dogs as possible before the animals go to sleep for the winter and possibly never wake up, as their historic colony is paved over for commercial space.
Late notice of construction and a low capture rate have complicated the effort, meaning the intelligent rodents face long-odds.
“It’s definitely not going as well as we hoped,” said Emily Nelson, a conservation biologist with Habitat Harmony.
Her cellphone ringtone is the sound of prairie dogs barking. She and her group of volunteers had caught just nine prairie dogs by early this week.
Her fear is that grading will begin before there’s another chance to catch the animals when they wake up in spring.
It was the Arizona Department of Game and Fish Department that contacted Habitat Harmony for help relocating the prairie dogs. The two groups began mapping the site earlier this summer as soon as they found out about the pending development.
They counted more than 3,300 prairie dog holes on the site. A crude estimate has about half as many animals as holes, because each burrow requires an entrance and an exit.
The ecologists had no time to prebait the site by getting the animals used to eating the food they would be using in traps. Some of their more than 400 traps have already been stolen, and Nelson worries that the site’s high visibility might draw in people who would rather shoot the animals than see them moved.
Nelson said the developers have been very cooperative and supportive of her group.
“This is completely voluntary for them to do this,” she said of Phoenix-based Vintage Partners.
The commercial developers are paying for the flea powder, as well as the costs of moving the prairie dogs.
Ecologists say the animals are important to preserve because of their importance to ecosystems and greatly diminished numbers.
Researchers have found that pronghorn antelope and even cattle tend to prefer landscapes with prairie dogs over those without. Prairie dogs feed on grass and tubers, and the grass has been shown to be more tender and nutritious in areas near prairie dog colonies.
“They are a highly misunderstood animal,” Nelson said. “They are considered a keystone species. They are also prey for lots of animals in the area.”
Redtail hawks, snakes, coyotes and endangered black-footed ferrets all feed on the animals at the site.
Arizona Game and Fish considers the Gunnison prairie dog, the variety that lives in Flagstaff, a species of greatest conservation concern. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether the Gunnison will be placed on the endangered species list, as the species has decreased by 95 percent over its native range in the Southwest.
Land development, oil and gas drilling and plague have hit the squirrel relative particularly hard.
That gives the colony on Soliere Avenue a particular importance.
PROTECTED BY DEVELOPMENT
And although the colony is surrounded by housing developments and roadways, it is ironically those things that have helped protect the animals.
The prairie dog does not present as high of a plague risk to humans as other animals because it dies very easily once bit by infected fleas. But that sensitivity is obviously a detriment to the animal itself.
By isolating the colony, urban development has strangely helped protect it.
“They are less likely to get the plague in Flagstaff than they are in the wild,” she said.
Now, the colony’s catchable animals will be relocated to abandoned burrow sites where previous colonies have been wiped out by plague.
Habitat Harmony hopes the animals will be able to repopulate the colony and restore prairie dogs to areas of rangeland where they are welcome.
HOLES DUSTED FOR FLEAS
The volunteers have taken meticulous care to give the animals the best chance possible. They are working with a property owner that is welcoming to the prairie dog immigrants.
Flea powder has been sprayed into the prairie dog holes on Soliere Avenue and each captured animal is itself flea-dusted before being deposited into its new home, which has also been treated.
Nelson and the volunteers even check the holes for snakes before they drop the animals in. They will also continue to provide food for several weeks while the prairie dogs adjust to their new surroundings.
Yet, none of that is a guarantee for the animals being relocated.
Nelson did her graduate work on relocating prairie dogs. She found that in the first year of relocation at another site, more than 50 percent of the animals died. However, the population seemed to bounce back in the years that followed, and some of the animals studied lived normal lifespans.
RELOCATION SITE A SECRET
Although many people might think of prairie dogs as having a high libido and rapid breeding rate, the animals are actually very choosy about mating. They only do so for a few hours on one day a year.
Another threat at relocation sites were people who noticed the newcomers and decided to go out and shoot them. For that reason, nonprofit groups do not disclose their relocation sites.
Nelson expects to be using volunteers for about another month as she works to collect as many prairie dogs as possible before the animals begin to hibernate. Instead of plotting out family units and trying to keep them together, the ecologists are simply plotting the area in grids and hoping to put neighbors next to neighbors.
She says that if the city of Flagstaff had an environmental planner, the commercial development might have been spotted sooner and passed along to a group like hers to create a solution. Instead, Habitat Harmony was notified by state Game and Fish after their environmental planner, who typically doesn’t look at projects in city limits, spotted development in the area of a known colony.
Now, the group plans to work seven days a week to make sure they catch every animal possible.
For more information, visit www.habitatharmony.org.