Part of the allure of Highlands Ranch is the wildlife, including deer and elk. While most animals freely roam open spaces throughout the community, some, like prairie dogs, need to be monitored for …
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Part of the allure of Highlands Ranch is the wildlife, including deer and elk. While most animals freely roam open spaces throughout the community, some, like prairie dogs, need to be monitored for hazards to public health and the environment, according to the Highlands Ranch Metro District.
The metro district closely watches the community's prairie dog colonies. If the metro district determines that prairie dogs must be moved, the district posts the planned activity on its website 30 days before any action is taken. Currently, one colony, near Big Dry Creek Open Space, is on the metro district's radar.
Below are four things to know about prairie dogs in Colorado and in Highlands Ranch.
About prairie dogs
Three species of prairie dogs live in Colorado: the black-tailed prairie dog, found along the Front Range; Gunnison's prairie dog; and the white-tailed prairie dog.
They live in burrows about 10 yards apart, 3 to 14 feet deep, and 10 feet to more than 100 feet long, according to Colorado State University. A mound at the entrance of the burrow prevents water flooding and serves as a lookout station.
Prairie dog burrows serve as homes for other animals, including owls, cottontail rabbits and rattlesnakes. Burrowing benefits the land by decreasing soil compaction and increasing the soil's water intake, according to the university.
Many prairie dog colonies in Highlands Ranch are fragmented — meaning populations are scattered across the land — which results in overpopulation of the rodent, insufficient predators, a lack of natural resources, close contact with humans and possible property damage, according to the metro district.
Prairie dogs can carry fleas infected with the plague, several health organizations report. The plague is transmitted to people through flea bites or direct contact with bodily fluids of infected animals, the Humane Society of the United States says. But the plague is primarily a disease of wild rodents, and more than 95 percent of prairie dogs die within 78 hours of plague exposure.
Active prairie dog sites
In 2010, the metro district's board of directors designated four active prairie dog sites in the community. Three sites with more than 600 prairie dogs combined exist in the Big Dry Creek Open Space, which is in the southeast corner of Highlands Ranch. One site with 220 prairie dogs is in a patch of open space between South Broadway and the Foothills Trail, near Dad Clark Drive.
Metro district staff tracks the health of each colony, the size, destruction of private property, hazards to human health and safety, noxious weed invasions and general vegetative health, according to the metro district's website.
“Combinations of these factors are considered when determining the need to remove prairie dogs,” the website says.
The prairie dog population in a colony in east Big Dry Creek Open Space is at capacity, the metro district reports. There are about 14 prairie dogs per acre. After Sept. 2, the metro district will reduce the prairie dog population to about 12 per acre to minimize hazards to public health, safety and wildlife habitats.
The action taken depends on the time of year — the rodent's birthing and nursing period is from March through May — budgetary constraints, weather conditions, and geographic conditions of the colony.
To manage colonies, the metro district uses natural features, such as tree plantings to cover predators of the rodent and artificial perches for raptors. Further management techniques are relocation, burrow flushing and extermination. The metro district may consider euthanizing the animals and giving them to wildlife organizations — such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife Volunteer Raptor Monitor Program — to use as food.
This time around, the metro district will exterminate some of the prairie dogs by fumigating their burrows with carbon monoxide.
"We are going in for minimal management of one colony," said Nick Adamson, natural resource manager at the metro district.
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