Staple species: Prairie dogs important to West wildlife chain

A whitetail prairie dog sits on a mound around a burrow. Prairie dogs are considered keystone species around the West. They are a food sources for larger predators while their burrows provide homes and cover for black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls and other animals.

Prairie dogs will pop up as a topic of interest Monday at a daylong seminar in Delta, sponsored by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

The seminar, from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the Bill Heddles Recreation Center, will focus on the state’s recently developed Gunnison’s Prairie Dog and White-tailed Prairie Dog Conservation Strategy.

You can read the strategy at this Web site,

Don’t head over to the meeting with the idea someone wants to hear how much you love or loathe prairie dogs; that topic already has been exhausted ad nauseam at other public venues.

The current strategy isn’t driven by popularity; it’s driven by the concern that if the state isn’t taking care of what’s become widely accepted as a keystone species, the federal government will step in and then, boy howdy, will the fur hit the fan.

“These workshops are not forums at which people will simply give their opinions about prairie dogs,” said Gary Skiba, senior wildlife conservation biologist for the DOW. “The workshops are designed to develop specific plans for specific areas. By working with local stakeholders, we can identify conservation solutions unique to each area and develop on-the-ground management and action plans.”

Although the statewide plan deals both with Gunnison’s and white-tailed prairie dogs, only the latter will be discussed at the Delta meeting because the Gunnison’s prairie dog does not inhabit this part of Colorado.

Monday’s workshop is open to private landowners, conservationists, local, state and federal land agencies and anyone interested in preserving a way of life that includes co-habiting the West with prairie dogs.

If these workshops sound familiar, you might remember the series of similar meetings across western Colorado dealing with sage grouse conservation.

Those workshops, at times painful but eventually productive, resulted in unique partnerships between landowners and conservationists, which isn’t meant to suggest those factions are completely exclusive.

But how you use the land makes a huge difference in both your idea of what a healthy landscape is and how you regard your ultimate responsibility to other users.

Partnerships in sage grouse management have enabled such precedent-setting agreements as the tongue-numbing Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, which lines out sage-grouse conservation measures while allowing landowners the continued use of their land.

A key part of the conservation agreement allows ranchers to continue their livelihood with guarantees no further land-use restrictions or conditions will be required from them if the Gunnison sage-grouse is ever listed as a threatened or endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Currently, the white-tailed prairie dog isn’t being considered for listing, and that’s just how the DOW wants to keep it.

“One of the things we focus on in these workshops is the ways we can do things in collaborative partnerships rather than have the ESA listing drive things,” Skiba said. “It’s not that we are trying to avoid listing just to avoid listing, what we are trying to make sure is these populations are in good enough shape they don’t need the protection of the ESA process.”

Duck numbers up

You might not have noticed while waiting in the glare of Saturday’s opening morning, but waterfowl biologists are reassuring hunters that duck numbers are up this year.

Overall, North American waterfowl populations increased by 13 percent to a bit more than 42 million, but the good news is that ever-popular mallard numbers are up by 10 percent.

Northwest Colorado is a mini duck factory during years of good moisture, providing many of the ducks hunters chase here in the Grand Valley.

The cool, wet spring will provide long-term benefits for ducks numbers and for duck hunters, although hunting along the Colorado River always depends on weather as much as waterfowl numbers.

Until a cold snap freezes the area’s ponds and lakes and sends birds to the river, waterfowlers along the river, which is where the majority of public access is found, will have plenty of time to read the biologists’ reports.


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