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A couple of prairie dogs survey the land from their post in Durango. Long a scourge to gardeners and greenskeepers, there’s more to these furry burrowers than meets the eye./Photo by Brandon Mathis

The prairie underground

Prairie dog facts, myths and divine intervention
by Brandon Mathis

Prairie dogs. They stand up and bark. They look like hoodlum rats – chipmunks with baggy pants. They are regarded as some of America’s most viewable wildlife and an integral part of the ecosystem. They also wreak havoc on gardens and golf courses throughout the West and are well known transmitters of the plague. But love or hate these furry critters, there’s more to them than meets the eye.
So much more that, concerned over decline of Gunnison’s and white-tailed prairie dogs throughout the western part of the state, the Colorado Division of Wildlife adopted a “conservation strategy” in 2010. In addition to the aforementioned plague, other factors threatening prairie dogs include agriculture, energy and mineral development, poisoning, poor rangeland condition, recreational shooting and urban sprawl. Both the Gunnison’s and the white-tailed prairie dog were petitioned for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2004 and 2002, respectively. However, with appropriate management, the DOW anticipates that listing of the species will not be needed.
So, what kind of dog is a prairie dog? Well, it’s no dog at all.
“Prairie dogs are ground squirrels, related to others you might see around here, like the golden mantled ground squirrel or rock squirrels,” said Erin Lehmer, assistant professor of biology at Fort Lewis College.
Gay Balfour peers into his “Blue Room.” The Cortez man may be the most famous prairie dog catcher alive, having invented a vacuum truck that sucks the varmints directly from the burrow./Photo by Brandon Mathis
Southwest Colorado is home to Cynomys Gunnisoni, aka the Gunnison’s prairie dog, which believe it or not, is coveted by exotic pet collectors.
Although many local prairie dogs are preparing to bed down for the winter right now, during the warmer months they can be found digging burrows with their large claws, using those trademarked teeth for chewing seeds and succulent plants, and communicating via that unmistakable bark.
“They are an extremely social animal,” said Lehmer. “Most squirrels are asocial. Males and females really only get together for reproduction. But prairie dogs live in colonies.”
Weighing in somewhere around 2 pounds by a foot or so, prairie dogs develop communities of lengthy tunnels, complete with nurseries, exits and listening chambers. The entrance is a mound that sheds water and serves as a lookout. These dog-towns, normally about half a square mile in size, break down into smaller wards and coteries, where males play dad until it’s time to move on. However, as dog-towns get divided by development, smaller urban-pocket populations become more common.
These communal rodents play, chase and seemingly kiss, a kind of greeting. Adults stand guard while others groom and graze. Known for sounding alarm calls, their namesake bark is actually a series of high-pitch, multi-syllable sounds carrying detailed information. In other words, they talk, sort of.
“There is research that shows Gunnison’s prairie dogs have a sophisticated vocal communication for certain predators,” said Mark Ball, Wildlife Program Director for the San Juan Public Lands. He pointed to the University of Northern Arizona, where animal behaviorists study prairie dog communication. Gunnies especially can convey what predator, what color, size, shape and much more. “They are ridiculously smart animals,” said Lehmer.
The animal also plays a central role in certain environments – a building block for balanced ecology. “They are a keystone species,” said Ball. “Because of their burrowing and grazing, they create a unique habitat in an ecosystem.”
A food staple for eagles, hawks, fox, coyote and even badgers, prairie dogs also aerate soil and keep nutrients high, distributing seeds and scattering organic material. Their burrows are adopted by burrowing owls and the elusive black-footed ferret. One of the rarest animals alive, the black-footed ferret’s numbers were dangerously reduced by the poisoning of prairie dogs, the ferrets’ main prey.
Unfortunately, with their natural predators declining, prairie dogs have become more of a modern-day nuisance to farmers and ranchers, developers, landscapers, school districts, gardeners: you name it.
Enter Gay Balfour: welder, fireman, antique firearms collector and inventor.
People flood them, poison them and shoot them, and he’s seen it all. What Balfour did, though, was catch them unharmed with a machine that he invented from a dream. Balfour, of Cortez, is perhaps the world’s most famous prairie dog-catcher, and according to him, God showed him how to do it.
He recounts a dream of a giant truck with a green hose to suck up prairie dogs right out of their burrows, like a vacuum cleaner. “I had a reputation for knowing how to fix things,” Balfour said, and he invented his dream-machine, pieced together and financed by divine intervention, and caught 23 prairie dogs in 45 minutes.
Shortly after, Balfour got a call from Durango where an athlete broke a leg in a burrow on a soccer field. “The next morning I was on national TV, and the phone was ringing off the hook,” said Balfour, and “Dog Gone” was born.
Balfour got more trucks and starting removing prairie dogs by the thousands from residential developments, commercial real estate and corporate empires alike. He even helped tighten national security and was the only private contractor allowed at Buckley Air Force Base on Colorado’s Front Range during 9/11. “We had a guy dressed like he was going to Afghanistan walking around with each one of us,” said Balfour. After Balfour’s visit, the 1,500 false alarms per day were down to 50.
Balfour modified the trucks in order to soften the experience for the animals. He also learned from other’s mistakes. “There’s no book for this,” said Balfour. “They’re a sensitive animal when you get em’ all riled up.”
Most importantly, he learned who wanted prairie dogs. It was the black-footed ferrets, well, really the folks reintroducing the endangered species. So from then on, from Nebraska to Wyoming to Phoenix, Balfour hand-delivered prairie dogs to black-footed ferret programs, and he did it all for free.
These days, Balfour’s trucks stay mostly parked, and the man in his 70s says that a balanced ecology will sort itself out. He knows from 20 years of observation that raptors need a perch to hunt from, and they will control a population. He knows that putting poison in the ground is bad. “Mr. Black-foot knows it, just ask him.”
Balfour also knows that prairie dogs get the plague, and for most of them, that’s it. Sylvatic plague, the rodent’s version of bubonic plague, is the biggest threat to prairie dog populations. Having come about within the last 70 years or so, the animals haven’t had enough time to develop natural resistnace to the disease, which can wipe out entire colonies in a matter of days. However, it’s not the prairie dogs that are the carriers; it’s the fleas that infect them. As for the culprit for human infection, it might be purring on our doorstep.
“Once a colony gets infected, 98 percent are dead within days. So the flea will wait at the mouths of burrows for animals to come across,” Lehmer said. “One of the biggest vectors of the plague, in terms of human infection, is the domestic house cat.”
Lehmer dispelled other myths about prairie dogs. “They get a bad rap” she said. ”There has never been a documented case of any livestock stepping in a prairie dog burrow and breaking its leg. It’s an old wives’ tale. And, they don’t eat all the foliage for livestock, but are constantly clipping the vegetation they can reach, giving the rest of the plant higher nutritional content. Cattle and bison actually prefer to graze on prairie dog colonies.”
Just the same, many people perhaps put a little too much emphasis on the words keystone species. “People see a colony of prairie dogs living on a median in downtown Denver and think, ‘Oh no, we have to save them, they are a keystone species,’” Lehmer said. “But the thing is, they are not, in that context. They just fulfill that role in a certain ecosystem.”