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Wildlife Updates 2001
Beginning on September 1, 2001, sport shooting of black-tailed prairie dogs is prohibited. Howeverand it's a big "however"private landowners, their families, employees, lessees, agents, or designees can shoot prairie dogs when damage is occurring. And the case can always be made that some damage is occurring. What we have then is a ban on sport shooting on public lands in Colorado except for State Land Board land that is leased for agricultural purposes. One of the positive results of this action is that we will be able to see whether prairie dog populations on National Grasslands recover or whether it was plague rather than shooting that was suppressing populations.
The pilot Landowner Incentive Program, which will pay landowners not to control prairie dogs on dry grasslands, is moving forward. As you may remember, CDOW has a total of $600,000available from GOCO for this program. At least three, and possibly four by now, County Soil Conservation Districts have agreed to act as leasing agents for the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW). They will take competitive bids, evaluate the suitability of habit, and sign contracts with the winning landowners. The only "fly in the ointment" right now is that the state Attorney General's office has restricted the contracts to one year when we had hoped for five to ten year contracts. All of the states in the region inhabited by the black-tailed prairie dog are cooperating in seeking funds in the 2002 Farm Bill to continue similar incentive programs.
The EDAW study completed last year showed that eastern Colorado has approximately 214,000 acres of active prairie dog towns. Aerial surveys, intended to verify the acreage numbers have been delayed because of conflicting uses of CDOW aircraft and pilot(s) and will probably be completed sometime in October. In the meantime, we are working to establish long term acreage goals. A good target might be one percent of the suitable habitat, which would be approximately 270,000 acres and this should probably be increased to account for potential reductions from sylvatic plague.
Unfortunately, statutory restrictions remain which restrict our ability to relocate prairie dogs and prevent any limits on the use of toxicants. These restrictions might, ultimately, make listing more likely.
Landowner incentive meetings are continuing, including meetings with county commissioners in selected counties. Although there is still opposition in some areas, I believe that this effort is the most likely approach to preserving and enhancing species populations. As I noted in an earlier update, there is $600,000 in capital funding for the program which must be spent in the next three years. In support of this and similar efforts in other states, active lobbying efforts are taking place in Washington, D. C. directed toward funding from the 2002 farm program. Contract forms, habitat evaluation criteria, and question and answer sheets have been developed for the implementation of the program. Soil Conservation Boards, with (likely) technical assistance from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory will actually implement the program in the chosen counties.
An additional work group has been established to determine the acreage targets for active prairie dog colonies in Colorado. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended, at one time, a target of 1% of the suitable habitat in the eleven state range. They have since backed away from this recommendation. If you remember from previous newsletters, the EDAW Study showed 214,000 occupied acres in the state. Aerial transect surveys will further refine acreage numbers by October first. One percent of suitable habitat would be approximately 270,000 acres. Then this number should be increased to allow for the effects of sylvatic plague on the occupied acres. More on this in the future. Wyoming actually has well over 1% of its habitat occupied. Other states, with more irrigated agriculture are in much worse shape than either Colorado or Wyoming.
On the plus side, legislation restricting re-location within counties was defeated in the legislature, as was most legislation which would have had an adverse effect on Colorado's wildlife. One example was the failure to fund the coyote control experiment that was intended to increase mule deer fawn survival.
And finally, the ban on recreational shooting of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs takes effect on September 1, 2001.
There is a great deal of activity regarding Black-tailed Prairie Dogs in Colorado, but no significant progress on the ground beyond the ban on recreational shooting which will take effect on September 1, 2001. The aerial flight inventory will begin this spring and probably will be completed in May. This will provide a good check on the 214,000 acre estimate from the EDAW study.
I attended meetings in Fort Collins on February 28, 29, and March 1 and in Denver on March 10 and 11. The Fort Collins meeting was sponsored by various government agencies and by EDAW. The primary focus of this meeting was the management of prairie dogs within front range cities and counties. And we learned, among other things that when colonies are totally surrounded and contained by residential development, streets, etc. that the area of the colony is quickly denuded of vegetation. Likewise, a colony of this type has little genetic diversity (among prairie dogs) and little species diversity. The Denver meeting was a "Prairie Dog Summit," hosted by Rocky Mountain Animal Defense (RMAD). The focus of this meeting, as you might expect, was how to prevent the destruction of prairie dogs along the front range. In addition to lawsuits, this coalition will try to persuade developers to preserve land for prairie dogs and to provide migration corridors within urban/suburban communities for genetic interchange. They also hope to persuade the U.S. Forest Service to accept prairie dog relocation onto the Pawnee National Grassland.
Private Landowner Incentive meetings are continuing and appeared to be making significant progress with landowner participation. However a meeting with landowners in Baca and Bent counties seemed to elicit a great deal of hostility toward CDOW personnel and concerns/conditions which indicated a general opposition to the program in those counties. It is appropriate to keep in mind, however that there was similar opposition to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) initially. At this point there is $600,000 in capital funding available for the program with three years to expend the funds, thus relieving some of the time pressure. The next landowner incentive meeting is March 26 in Colorado Springs and, presumably, representatives from Bent and Baca counties will also be present. Various options for resolving this, apparent, stalemate include meetings with Bent and Baca county commissioners, pursuing relocation in other counties, or possibly going back to the idea of just relocating on State Land Board parcels.
And, finally, House Bill 1350, concerning "Destructive Rodent Pests," and their relocation within a county was held over to March 19 and, at this time, I have no further information regarding its fate. The current version of the bill did not require county commissioner approval, but rather notification and a thirty-day waiting period. Such a waiting period might well lead a developer to destroy rather than relocate prairie dogs.
Lynx are alive and well in Colorado. Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) biologists are still tracking 50 of the 96 lynx released in the San Juan Mountains over the past two years. Approximately 30 of the transplanted lynx died from a variety of causes including starvation, gunshot wounds, and being hit by automobiles. For one reason or another, the radio collars on six males have not been detected in over a year and the radio collar on another animal may have slipped off. Of most concern is the death of four lynx from sylvatic plague. Like the prairie dog and the black-footed ferret, the lynx have no natural immunity to plague. Although we don't know the vector for plague in the lynx' high altitude habitat, rodents, perhaps pine squirrels, are suspected.
The rest have clearly learned to hunt and are finding adequate prey. Mortality normally exceeds 50% in the first year of a carnivore reintroduction because of the specific habitat needs of predators. The lower than expected mortality rate for lynx is seen as an encouraging sign at this early stage in the reintroduction effort. Although they are still waiting for the first signs of young, CDOW biologists are pleased with the over-all progress of the lynx transplant. If young are born this year, we would expect to see them in May or June.
And, if you haven't already filed your Colorado Income Tax Return, remember that this re-introduction effort was funded in part by the Non-game and Endangered Wildlife tax check off. This check off is one way to do your part to help Colorado's non-game wildlife species.
EDAW finished their population study and has, ground truthed about 32% of the available data. The resultColorado has approximately 214,000 acres of occupied prairie dog colonies. This number may be low because some recently occupied colonies may not be visible from roads. It may be high because the methodology followed (verification from roads and highways) did not always distinguish between colonies and complexes (a complex is a group of colonies within a reasonable dispersal distance). Regardless, were stuck with it at this time and its better information than most of the states have regarding their prairie dog acreage. As we move into next spring, this data will be supplemented with the aerial flight inventory discussed in a previous article.
Weve reached the end-game regarding recreational shooting of prairie dogs. Out of six alternatives discussed at the wildlife commission workshop in Alamosa in October, staff was directed to bring two to the table at the November 16th Wildlife Commission meeting for a vote. At that meeting, both of the above alternatives were thrown out and the commission opted for the most restrictive alternative discussed no open season for sport hunting of black-tailed prairie dogs. This alternative still allows landowners, their families, employees, lessees, agents or designees to shoot prairie dogs where damage is occurring. In effect then, we have a state-wide closed season on public lands, with some sport shooting on private property. And, as was pointed out to me, this will probably prevent outfitters from bringing in truckloads of hunters to shoot on private property as is happening in the Dakotas and Wyoming. While this regulation doesnt provide all that we would like, it is much better than I ever expected.
On November 6, we had still another relatively unproductive meeting of the Private Lands Incentives Group. Clearly, the only way that prairie dogs will be acceptable on most private lands is through incentive payments which compensate farmers and ranchers for grazing losses caused by prairie dogs. Habitat quality issues have been addressed and we are currently discussing contract issues. For example, what happens if a landowner has received an incentive payment for keeping prairie dogs on 100 acres of land and plague kills all of the prairie dogs? And what about buffer distances from cultivated lands or from other landowners property and who pays for control in these buffers? What about re-location onto the plagued out property? What areas of the state do we focus on with the initial $100,000 that is available for a pilot program? Well be attempting to address some of these issues in future meetings.
Finally, there is no perceptible progress towards a permit system for the use of toxicants. The Colorado Division of Wildlife seems unwilling to move forward on this issue without the support of the Colorado Department of Agriculture and this does not seem to be forthcoming. The toxicants issue is deemed much more important than hunting by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it considers whether listing will be required to preserve and recover the species. And, at this moment, rumor has it that a bill will be introduced in the upcoming legislative session to require the approval of county commissioners to re-locate prairie dogs within a county.