‘Helping folks with human-wildlife conflict’: DWR counts prairie dogs in Iron County

CEDAR CITY — The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently began its yearly Utah prairie dog count in Iron County and the surrounding areas as part of its effort to conserve the species while navigating human-prairie dog conflict.

A prairie dog, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Cedar City News

Utah prairie dog recovery biologist Barbara Sugarman, who works for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in Cedar City, met with Cedar City News at a prairie dog site, where, upon arrival, a large prairie dog could be seen standing atop a dirt mound, barely visible against the dirt.

It sounded its bark-like call, which Sugarman said was meant to warn other prairie dogs of danger, then dove in and out of its burrow, before it “chuckled” one last time and disappeared from view.

This prairie dog would one of many to be counted as part of the annual survey.

Counting prairie dogs

The DWR conducts prairie dog surveys on a variety of land types, including U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and national park lands. Sugarman said that the division also surveys prairie dogs on lands with conservation easements, such as wildlife management areas.

Prairie dogs in Cedar City, Utah, April 25, 2022 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, Cedar City News

Primarily, the division counts prairie dogs on private property by viewing the area through binoculars from public roads, Sugarman said. There are over 1,200 mapped prairie dog colonies, about a third of which were occupied last year.

Sugarman said completing prairie dog counts is a group effort between the division, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the BLM, the Forest Service and Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

Prairie dog data has been being collected since 1976, a feat Sugarman said is rare, adding that this allows the DWR and partner organizations to track changes over time.

“You’re not getting a full census, obviously, because you’re not seeing 100% of the individuals, but it’s really great data that a lot of other species aren’t fortunate enough to have,” she said.

Counts are done in the spring before pups emerge around May to ensure data is composed of mostly adult prairie dogs because only a percentage of pups survive.

Sugarman said prairie dogs are listed as threatened under 1973’s Endangered Species Act. According to the Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Revised Recovery Plan for the Utah Prairie Dog notice, released by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah prairie dogs are only found in Southwestern and Central Utah.

The recovery plan stipulates that 1,000 prairie dogs be counted on protected land in each of three recovery units; Iron County is part of the West Desert Recovery Unit. The DWR can use count data to track trends, compare prairie dog numbers with previous years, identify current locations of prairie dog colonies, and pinpoint where technicians may need to trap prairie dogs and translocate them before land development begins, Sugarman said.

Barbara Sugarman, Utah prairie dog recovery biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources searching for prairie dogs, Cedar City, Utah, April 20, 2022 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, Cedar City, News

“The division puts in a lot of effort toward Utah prairie dog conservation but we also put in a lot of effort toward helping folks with human-wildlife conflict issues,” she said. “And we want folks to know that we are working very hard to make sure that we’re helping people if they have any issues with prairie dogs or anything like that and we’re working hard to get conservation goals met so that we can eventually get the species delisted.”

The Recovery Plan notice states that the two greatest threats to Utah prairie dogs are habitat loss and plague.

According to the United States Geological Survey, prairie dogs are prone to Sylvatic plague, which is transmitted through flea bites and can cause 90% or more prairie dogs in a colony to die during an outbreak. The bacterium, Yersinia pestis, also causes bubonic and pneumonic plague.

Prairie dog counts enable the DWR to track trends and pinpoint when a colony has grown large and may need a preventative dusting of deltamethrin, an insecticide meant to control plague-causing fleas, Sugarman said.

Development and prairie dogs

A sample clearance map, date not specified, Cedar City, Utah| Image courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Cedar City News

The DWR uses the ArcGIS Field Maps app to track prairie dog count data, which allows them to see where prairie dogs currently are. This is essential, Sugarman said, because when property owners clear and pave land or remove vegetation, it is difficult for her to determine if prairie dogs were active there, but the data stored on ArcGIS will enable her to determine whether prairie dogs were previously counted in the area. If so, she said the property owner will need a permit.

It is a good idea for landowners considering development to contact the DWR, Sugarman said, adding that some properties will require a prairie dog survey before they can be developed.

“Just even doing that one action before you start on your project or do any work, it makes my life so much easier, … it’ll make your life so much easier,” Sugarman said. “It’s not even just like our time and effort – it’s your time and effort.”

Under the General Conservation Plan, building permits cannot be issued until the landowner obtains a prairie dog clearance letter or Certificate of Inclusion, according to a recent presentation from the DWR. Additionally, the plan designates areas where prairie dog surveys are required, establishes mitigation fees for development and authorizes prairie dog trapping on private land.

A chart listing mitigation fees, date and location not specified | Image courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Cedar City News

According to the presentation, landowners should build two weeks into their construction timeline for a prairie dog survey and avoid ground disturbance or vegetation removal until the survey is completed. If no prairie dogs are discovered, the division will issue a clearance letter, and development can begin.

If prairie dogs are observed on the property, the division will issue a Utah prairie dog occupied habitat letter, which will contain information regarding how a landowner can obtain a Certificate of Inclusion, the mitigation fee and potential trapping efforts toward removing the prairie dogs from the property. Once a Certificate of Inclusion is obtained, development can begin, the presentation states.

According to the DWR presentation, prairie dog surveys are free and mitigation fees are only charged if prairie dogs currently occupy land overlapping a project development plan. Mitigation fees are collected by the county where the landowner resides.

The DWR will begin trapping Utah prairie dogs from July 1 until Sept. 3o. Because there is a limited timeframe, Sugarman stresses that landowners who are considering trapping on their property should plan ahead of time.

Landowners can determine if a survey is necessary by checking Iron County’s GIS webpage, which contains the prairie dog clearance map or calling Reed Erickson a Planner and Special Service Coordinator with Iron County Building & Zoning at 435-865-5350. Landowners may also contact the DWR by phone at 435-691-5700 or email [email protected].

A prairie dog, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Cedar City News

Conserving prairie dogs

Prairie dogs tend to live in moisture-rich, alluvial soil, Sugarman said, adding that such land is perfect for farming, putting humans and prairie dogs at odds.

“We want to make sure that we’re not impeding development,” Sugarman said. “You know, there’s a balance between conservation and development.”

Sugarman said prairie dogs prefer low vegetation, so they work well with grazing animals, like sheep. Additionally, other animals prefer prairie dog towns during a fire because there is typically less vegetation in the immediate area, serving as a firebreak.

Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species, which means their effect on the environment is larger than their body weight would suggest, Sugarman said, adding that many other animals either eat or depend on them. The burrows they build are used by other native species, such as snakes and burrowing owls. Larger species such as badgers or coyotes have been known to excavate prairie dog towns to build their own burrows.

A prairie dog, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Cedar City News

Their fundamental impact on the environment is also why prairie dogs are known by some as “ecosystem engineers,” Sugarman said.

According to the National Park Service, prairie dogs mix subsoil and topsoil while digging, redistributing nutrients and minerals and allowing for moisture retention.

Sugarman said prairie dogs have busy social lives and live in family units called coteries, typically consisting of one male and multiple, related females. When grown, juvenile males leave the coterie to create their own family units and because of this behavior, exact colony locations evolve year to year. The DWR uses the yearly count to track site boundaries.

Sugarman said she loves working with prairie dogs and finds them fascinating.

“This is my dream job, being 100% honest, this is like everything I’ve ever wanted to do,” Sugarman said. “And I just feel like the luckiest person in the world that I get to do this.”

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