Survey shows larger prairie dog habitat than expected

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

The Conquistador Golf Course in the high-desert town of Cortez, Colo., is a fairly forgiving track. But on several holes that skirt each other on the front nine, it’s best not to be in the rough right of those fairways.

Or what remains of the rough.

Prairie dogs have long called this place home, turning this chunk of golf real estate into their own massive sanctuary. The prairie dogs mind their own business here — they’re not a problem for golfers at this southwestern Colorado course, and their digs have pretty much become part of the course landscape through the years.

But if you hit a shot into the rough here, good luck finding your ball amid a sea of these prairie dog dwellings. And if you do, chances are the lie won’t be good.

But that’s OK. Prairie dogs are important to the ecological system here as well as across the Great Plains, and according to a recent survey, places like this are becoming more commonplace in Colorado and the Great Plains.

A recent federal survey conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists shows the animals have two times more habitat than expected — at 500,000 acres, according to a story by the Denver Post that was picked up by The Associated Press.

These rodents help sustain endangered black-footed ferrets and more than 100 other species on the Great Plains, according to the survey. However, environmentalists, developers and the state of Colorado tend to clash when it comes to prairie dogs.

The animals have faced declining numbers due to plague, urban development, and other issues, but there is no current push toward an endangered species listing, and a federal review determined protections were not necessary.

Tina Jackson of Colorado Parks and Wildlife said a listing of a species like this would have a huge impact on landowners.

“It could restrict activities on their property,” Jackson said. “Prairie dogs are really important. If we didn’t have adequate areas for prairie dogs, you could see cascading ecological effects.

“We’re very excited by the survey numbers. The survey shows we have enough prairie dogs.”

Surveys are also underway in other Great Plains states.

“If you want to protect the prairies,” she said, “then you’ve got to protect prairie dogs.”

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