By Conor McCue

BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) — Boulder City Council is considering expanding lethal measures used to control the prairie dog population on city-managed agricultural land. If approved, the new control efforts would start in 2021.

(credit: CBS)

Currently, the city relies on non-lethal relocation, but a summary of the new motion council will consider states the method has, “resulted in an inability to keep up with the rates of establishment and spread of prairie dogs in [Open Space and Mountain Parks] irrigated fields,” leading to “noticeable impacts to agricultural viability and to vegetation and soils across the landscape.”

An estimated 132,000 prairie dogs inhabit 4,457 acres of city-managed Open Space. According to the motion presented to council, that number represents the “highest levels since OSMP began tracking acres occupied in 1996.”

The proposed plan focuses on a large area north of Jay Road between Highway 36 and the Diagonal Highway. On Tuesday, Elizabeth Black and Cody Oreck showed off a plot of city-managed agricultural land that, in parts, had more exotic weeds than native grasses.

“Over those 20 years, the prairie dogs have eaten all the grass,” Black said. “The grass has failed because it’s been consistently overgrazed and overgrazed.”

The two women, who are part of a group called HEAL, Healthy Ecosystems and Agricultural Lands, are in favor of the motion before city council, which recommends prairie dog removal and lethal control, as well as activities that may damage prairie dog burrows. In total, between 900 and 1,200 prairie dogs could be relocated and 3,000 to 6,000 could be killed in the control efforts.

“We’re losing our valuable topsoil,” Black said. “There is not that much topsoil in Boulder. That’s why Boulder is called Boulder.”

Lindsey Sterling Krank , director of Prairie Dog Conflict Resolution for the Humane Society of the U.S., says the plan is a major departure from how Boulder has handled the situation for years.

“I don’t think any scientists have enough data to say prairie dogs are decreasing the soil’s health, so I hate to see us removing the animals without knowing that,” She said.

Krank is part of Keep Boulder Wild, a group that’s asking council to consider avoiding lethal control in certain areas KPW members have deemed it wouldn’t be effective or necessary.  For KPW, the fear is too many removals will not only hurt one species, but instead, the entire ecosystem.

“There’s nematodes and bugs and all sorts of bacteria and animals living in their burrows,” Krank said. “So, removing this native keystone grazer that provides ecosystem services is a hard sell to me.”

Council set aside 3-hours for discussion on the motion. A video of the full meeting will be available on the city’s Youtube channel.

Conor McCue