DENVER, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- A die-off of several prairie dog colonies from plague near Denver has prompted conservation advocates to insist the chubby ground squirrels get a bad rap and don't spread the flea-borne disease.
Evidence of a plague outbreak led a Colorado wildlife refuge to close to the public and a business to cancel a fireworks demonstration last week.
Prairie dog lovers -- including Colorado's First Gentleman Marlon Reis, husband of Gov. Jared Polis -- want to relocate colonies instead of poisoning them or bulldozing their habitats. With only 2 percent of the prairie dog habitat left in the West, conservationists say they don't want the species to generate further ill-will and misconceptions.
Prairie dogs are ground-based rodents with tan fur, large eyes, short ears and broad, round heads. The animals live in matriarchal "towns," where they stand guard outside their burrows, nibbling grass and plants. Prairie dog "yips" when they see a predator make up a complex language, researchers say.
The plague die-off was first discovered in a black-tailed prairie dog colony near public areas of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge, said David Lucas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife land director.
"When they disappear, people notice," he said. "If they hadn't died off near a public area, we might not have noticed right away and might have delayed our response." The agency closed the refuge to the public and has applied an insecticide called "delta dust" to prairie dog mounds in the park.
Plague was introduced on the West Coast 100 years ago and has been making its way east, Lucas said. Prairie dogs are susceptible to plague, which can kill off an entire colony in a few days. The last time plague was discovered in the refuge was about 17 years ago, Lucas said. "We were expecting it, and we had a plan."
The Tri-County Health Department said plague had also killed prairie dogs in Commerce City in an open space area and near a sporting goods store, which canceled a fireworks display.
Symptoms of plague include fever, swollen and tender lymph nodes, chills and extreme exhaustion, the health department said. The disease can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early.
Prairie dog advocates worry that the animals will be blamed for the disease, when in fact their die-offs are a bellwether that the disease is in the area.
"You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than catching plague," said Deanna Meyer of Prairie Protection Colorado.
Not a nuisance
Meyer said prairie dogs have been categorized as a nuisance species, and are the victims of paid hunting expeditions called "red mist society" safari tours, where high-powered rifles are used to kill the 15-inch creatures, resulting in their obliteration. "They have no protections," she said.
Prairie dogs have survived several attempts to eradicate the species in the early 1900s and the 1960s, before conservationists realized their importance to the prairie ecosystem.
Prairie dogs now are considered a "keystone species" that supports about 200 other species of wildlife, said Boulder-based prairie dog relocator Pam Wanek of Prairie Preserves LLC.
Prairie dogs are "candy bars of the prairie" for raptors, foxes, coyotes, ferrets and badgers. But their burrows also provide homes for snakes, insects, burrowing owls and plovers, salamanders, mice, turtles and frogs. Their digging aerates the land and helps promote a diversity of plants on the grasslands.
Because of the destruction of prairie dog habitat, five interconnected species are now considered at risk: black-footed ferrets, swift foxes, mountain plovers, burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks.
The sound waves of the squeaky chirps of prairie dogs have been found to contain a complex language that can distinguish predators and whether they're flying, slithering or walking.
The animals can communicate the difference between a coyote and a domestic dog, according to 30 years of research by Northern Arizona University biologist Con Slobodchikoff. They also can communicate the color of clothing and how fast a predator is approaching, Slobodchikoff said.
But their habitat has been eaten up by agriculture and development.
"Because prairie dog colonies are mostly found in flat grasslands, they are perfect places for developers to build subdivisions, shopping centers and parking lots," Slobodchikoff said in an email. "Fortunately, developers are now beginning to realize the environmental impact of killing prairie dogs, and are willing to allow and subsidize the relocation of colonies."
Moving prairie dogs is a tricky process, Mark Snyder Jr. found out when he realized the playful prairie dog colony on 11 acres behind his Parker, Colo., condo building was going to be poisoned by a developer.
Exterminators use phosphine gas, commercially called fumitoxin, to poison prairie dogs in their burrows, or they destroy the burrows with bulldozers.
"I didn't realize what I was getting myself into. I emailed everybody and their mother, trying to save these animals," Snyder said.
Snyder and a team of volunteers found a place that would accept the animals: the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge, run by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, site of a former nuclear trigger factory and later a Superfund cleanup site.
Snyder received approval from the local city council and county commissioners and a permit from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The developer kicked in $10,000, and the group received a surprise donation through its online crowdfunding campaign -- about $15,000 from Reis and Polis.
"We are so grateful to them," Snyder said.
Snyder and volunteers helped the Humane Society's Prairie Dog Coalition by setting up 300 traps baited with oats. The group captured close to 200 prairie dogs, which were transferred to the refuge land where underground nesting boxes had been buried with plastic tunnels leading in and out.
"We took them out of their cages, sprayed their butts with anti-flea insecticide and popped them into the tunnels," Snyder said. "Rocky Flats wants prairie dogs on their site because they are a keystone species that will help build the ecosystem for the prairie lands there."
In closed Rocky Mountain Arsenal refuge, rangers are conducting "flea counts" in plague-swept prairie dog burrows using pieces of felt, Fish and Wildlife's Lucas said. They will determine when the refuge can reopen to the public.
Setting the record straight about the source of plague, which affects about 70 other wildlife species, including birds, is important so that prairie dogs have a chance to survive, said Meyer of Prairie Protection Colorado.
"Too many people think prairie dogs are 'dirty, plague-infested pests,'" she said. "People know about the Black Death in Europe and get hysterical. We need to educate people to protect the prairie dogs, which are like the 'coral reefs' of the prairie ecosystem," she said.