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Dig into this Issue: Prairie Dog Relocation

By Victoria Bailey, Envirological Services

Envirological Services teamed up with Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) to do the right thing. The first stage of “digging” was into the literature. Carol Finley, Chief Biologist for Envirological Services (ES) along with professionals from KAFB’s Environmental Services researched reports of past relocation efforts to map out a careful and detailed plan of action. Prairie dog relocation efforts are very labor intensive. The procedure is secondary and clearly not as effective as protecting their habitat; however in this case the option was chosen to save lives due to future plans. Dogs in these "Prairie dog towns" on base are located in very close proximity to abandoned housing areas scheduled for demolition May 1st.

You may wonder why they bother with saving a few Prairie dogs’ lives? Apart from the obvious humane answer, KAFB is home to another species that is on the decline and has been for several years: the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). This small diurnal, as well as nocturnal owl seeks out abandoned burrows for their home. They also often co-habitat in the same general areas with dogs. Often the disappearance of the dogs is followed by significant declines in pairs of owls returning to the same area each year to breed.

The initial move uprooted nearly two dozen dogs well before most biologists and Prairie dog researchers report presence of young in the burrows. (It is likely most young are born in May and surface in June to explore their new world). There are five species of Prairie dogs, however in the Albuquerque area and on base only one species, the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog (Cynomys gunnisoni) is found.

Most of the literature targets relocation of Black-Tailed PD’s (Cynomys ludovicianus). This is because they are classified by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as “warranted” for protection, but “precluded” due to lack of funds. It should be noted also that USFWS faces extreme pressure from farmers, ranchers, developers, and government officials to not offer federal protection at this time. Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs are found throughout the central plains states and western states. When relocation efforts are done, they are often motivated for some reason related to other species, as is the case here on Kirtland. The annual decline of pairs of Burrowing Owls bearing offspring is a concern.

The Black-Tailed Prairie Dog is a recognized “keystone” (or integral) species of the short-grass prairie ecosystem. There is cause to believe this reasoning carries over to other prairie dog species as they too contribute to the lives of other mammals, insects, and birds of their environment providing habitat and food. The apparent relationship between dogs and Burrowing owls on KAFB certainly fueled the decision for relocation.

The procedure used was a sudsy flushing method that brings the dog to the surface. It is then captured, dried off, marked for future monitoring, and put in a small cage with alfalfa hay. It is then transported to its new home. All dogs from one area are relocated together to a new area due to their high level of sociability and close knit family groups called “coteries”. In the new area the selected burrows are “caged” for 4-5 days and the dogs are fed to encourage acceptance of their new homes. No known injuries to dogs occurred in this initial stage of relocation. ES and KAFB will closely monitor the new site to determine a "success rate". Most literature reveals that not all dogs survive the ordeal. Again, in this case, none would have remained given the scheduled activity.

Certainly our philosophy parallels decision-making that is part of everyday wildlife biology projects and scientific research efforts. We considered all possible consequences in our assessment of the issue. Ideally ecosystems work best when undisturbed. But with the invasion of human sprawl and development, attempts are made to preserve species and all interference is subject to weighing the consequences. Scientific investigations and research projects are well-intended actions. All actions will impact the environment and wildlife. Some have unforeseeable and detrimental consequences. Some impact does not surface until later. As professionals we approached this issue as we do every issue that affects the environment: weigh the outcomes and use sound judgment for decisions that affect the balance and biodiversity of all living creatures.

There is a line from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: "Even the wise cannot foresee all ends". Auspiciously, at the time of this interim report, we are seeing dogs standing by burrow entrances and moving around nearby. An accurate count is difficult but we are pleased to see them responding well to their new environment and we will continue our monitoring efforts and learn what we can from our work.