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Instead Of Killing Prairie Dogs, Researchers Consider Birth Control

Rae Ellen Bichell
Mountain West News Bureau
Ecologist Dan Salkeld holds a prairie dog after weighing it for a study at Bluff Lake Nature Center in Denver.

Researchers are looking into what may be a peaceful solution to the timeless struggle against a Mountain West rodent. They’re giving prairie dogs birth control. 

The burrowing rodents recently ruined camping plans for Denver concert-goers when an outbreak of the plague -- yes, that plague -- was discovered among the animals. In addition to suffering from bouts of the plague, the rodents’ burrowing habits have been known to cause trouble for ranchers and Little League teams alike. But they’re also considered a keystone species.

“They’re very important. Lots of other animals use prairie dog burrows to make homes, like burrowing owls and rabbits and snakes,” says Rachel Crouch, the executive director of the Bluff Lake Nature Center in Denver, a bubble of nature on the site of what used to be an airport. It’s completely surrounded by housing developments and businesses; a gas station is near enough you can read the prices while standing in the middle of a prairie dog kingdom. 

In a cross-species sort of way, the prairie dogs are the victims of gentrification.

Credit Rae Ellen Bichell / Mountain West News Bureau
Mountain West News Bureau
The bluffs colonized by prairie dogs have less vegetation and more erosion. A housing development at right has pushed the burrowing rodents further and further into Bluff Lake Nature Center.

“All these neighborhoods that surround us used to be open fields where prairie dogs lived and as the Stapleton neighborhood has been further developed those prairie dogs have been pretty much pushed onto our site,” says Crouch. “They’re adapting to areas that they wouldn’t normally choose to live and that’s pushing out other animals and other plant species.”

The bluffs that house prairie dog colonies are noticeably barren and pockmarked with holes. Crouch says they’ve already had to fill in holes after prairie dogs busted into the middle of the trails. She worries that if the creatures tunnel their way to another bluff, it could lead to erosion that destabilizes the parking lot and facilities.

Installing perches and bird houses for hawks didn’t seem to put much of a dent in the prairie dog population. Now, researchers are testing whether birth control could help curb populations. 

About a year ago, Dan Salkeld, a disease ecologist at Colorado State University, trapped a bunch of prairie dogs at Bluff Lake Nature Center. 

“We are trying to investigate ways of managing prairie dog populations without having to resort to killing them,” he says.

Credit Rae Ellen Bichell / Mountain West News Bureau
Mountain West News Bureau
Ecologist Dan Salkeld baits prairie dog traps with sweet feed as people pass by on a morning walk along the trail.

He gave the females in one part of the nature center a shot of GonaCon, a vaccineagainst reproductive hormones.

“The injection binds onto those hormones and convinces the prairie dog that these are foreign bodies and so its immune reaction stops the hormone cascade,” says Salkeld.

Prairie dogs in another part of the park got placebo shots of saline solution. The method has worked well in other wild animals including horses.

“It’s been used in large animals and this is us trying to look and see if it’s good for human-wildlife conflict at this much smaller scale of movement and smaller scale of animal,” he says. 

Now it’s time to check if the shot resulted in fewer prairie dog pups. Salkeld says if it is effective, this could be a solution for urban prairie dogs. In open space and ranchland, however, it likely wouldn’t make sense because it would be too labor intensive to catch and inoculate every female animal.

A Humane Society report released earlier this year included GonaCon as one potential option for non-lethal prairie dog management. 

Over the years, prairie dogs have inspired a number of creative control methods including a variety of reinforced fencing and even a vacuum device known as the Prairie Dog Sucker Upper.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.  

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.
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