Those dog-gone dogs

Animal-control business is booming as populations of prairie dogs explode in Montezuma, La Plata counties

A prairie dog stuffs himself with a mouthful of grass. According to a bioligist, populations of priairie dogs and other varmints have grown this summer. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

A prairie dog stuffs himself with a mouthful of grass. According to a bioligist, populations of priairie dogs and other varmints have grown this summer.

If you’ve been inundated with prairie dogs this season, you’re not alone.

The Cortez Airport, the Parks and Recreation Department, local residents and prairie dog control businesses are reporting the busiest season in recent memory.

“I’ve been here since 1971, and this is the worst year for prairie dogs I’ve ever seen,” said Gay Balfour, owner of Dog-Gone, Prairie Dog Control.

Out at the airport, Efrain Vaquera spends about two-thirds of the year trying keep the acres of prairie around the runway smooth so they will meet the Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for safety.

If a plane misses the runway at all, a plane could hit a prairie dog hole and blow a tire, Airport Manager Russ Machen said.

Vaquera drives a small truck with a Rodenator in the bed and a gun in the front seat, looking for fresh prairie dog holes across about 35 acres.

“That’s my world – you got to think about it in little squares,” he said.

The Rodenator fills a hole with 80 percent oxygen and 20 percent propane, causing a concussive blast. The rodents die from brain hemorrhages, he said.

This season, he says, he has also shot about 2,200 prairie dogs. The airport has never shot more than 1,000 in a year, Machen said.

Extraordinary season

Mesa Verde wildlife biologist Paul Morey said he has noticed that many rodents, including jack rabbits, squirrels and prairie dogs are doing well this season. All populations will cycle to some degree due to the availability of food and availability of water, he said.

Prairie dog-control businessman Balfour and Morey both said it was possible mild winter may have contributed to high numbers.

“Any time there’s warmer temperatures with less snow on the ground, and their food is available for a longer period of time, they can go out and graze,” Morey said.

Control methods vary

Even at Mesa Verde, where the rules are strict about animal management, Morey said the park has had to take steps to control the prairie dogs.

The animals have burrowed near the leach fields for the visitor’s center sewage treatment facility, and now the park is poisoning the animal with carbon monoxide cartridges and trapping them to be relocated.

The park has determined carbon monoxide to be the most humane way to control the prairie dogs. Afterward, the holes are filled so that other animals won’t scavenge the animals.

The park has been battling prairie dogs moving in near sewage treatment areas for several years and will probably have to continue the efforts, he said.

Phostoxin is another method employed by the Cortez Parks and Recreation Department to kill the animals. They employ a licensed pesticide applicator who poisons them starting in the spring and continuing throughout the season, said Dean Palmquist, the Parks and Recreation director.

Phostoxin is applied in a granular form and releases gas when exposed to moisture. The holes mainly near ballfields are covered after the prairie dogs are poisoned and flagged to keep the general public away from them after their treated. Untreated fields would pose a risk to the general public.

“We have player safety that we’re responsible for,” he said.

In residential areas, carbon monoxide poisoning, foam treatment and do-it-yourself cartridges of compressed gunpowder are among some of the options to control them.

Balfour, who gained national recognition for vacuuming prairie dogs with a sewage truck, now uses a soap foam to flood the holes and trap them alive. He had to abandon the vacuum method because of the cost but he considers the foam the most humane options.

“It doesn’t drown them, but they think it’s a flood, and they come up,” he said.

For farmers, a prairie dog problem can take a bite out of profits, at times eating up to 35 percent of alfalfa in production, Balfour said. The holes can also tear up farm equipment.

An employee for Hodiak Outfitters and Wildlife Solutions, Tom Bergey, said he uses a combination of the Rodenator and carbon monoxide poisoning, which he’s found to be about 90 percent effective. But total eradication is hard to achieve, especially if you’re neighbors aren’t controlling for them.

“It’s just going to be an on going battle,” he said.

Business is booming

But if you are looking for a contractor to help control a prairie dog problem, it could be awhile. The problem is rampant across both Montezuma and La Plata counties.

“We have been so busy, we haven’t been able to answer all the calls that come in,” said Judy Balfour, who helps run Dog-Gone.

Durango-based business, Hawkeye Wildlife and Pest control has been booked a month in advance since March, said co-owner Sara Padgett.

“A lot of people look at them like giant rats, they just don’t want rats in their yard,” she said.

However, some see cute and furry critters and don’t want to control them. Padgett cautions to be mindful of touching them if you want to keep them in your yard because their fleas are known to carry the plague.

“If you don’t want to treat them, you need to make sure you’re not messing with them,” she said.

mshinn@cortezjournal.com