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Devils Tower officials tackle prairie dog problem

Devils Tower officials tackle prairie dog problem

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Tourists love them, as evidenced by the pull-outs along the road for viewing.

But staff members at Devils Tower National Monument see prairie dogs as a potential problem.

Angela Wetz is chief of resources at the monument. She said officials are working on a management plan for a prairie dog colony threatening to expand its traditional range.

An estimate of the colony put the population at 496 prairie dogs. Devils Tower officials don’t have a prairie dog management plan in place, and the animals have been encroaching on visitor service sites.

The colony, located in the southeast corner of the monument area, has for years mostly stayed in one area. Recently, however, it has ventured into heavy use areas, such as a sculpture area, picnic ground and occasionally into the campgrounds, Wetz said.

While visitors love watching the animals, staff members want to keep them at a distance from humans.

“Prairie dogs can carry the plague,” Wetz said.

Potential management plans include vegetative barriers, a man-made wall or trapping and relocating the animals, she said.

Unlike many colonies, the

Devils Tower population has never experienced a major decline because of the plague, Wetz said. She noted the colony’s isolation, which includes a river on one side, has kept the colony off ranch land.

According to data starting in 1989, when only 62 prairie dogs were observed, the population peaked in 2000 with 1,033 observed animals. The population estimate was 325 in 2010.

The area doesn’t have many prairie dog predators, but the population is so small, predators won’t be introduced to reduce the numbers, she said.

Ferrets, a predator of the prairie dog, are not an option because one ferret requires about 100 acres of prairie dog colonization, Wetz said. The area near Devils Tower was estimated at 44 acres this year.

Efforts to keep the prairie dogs in their current area or to divert them in a different direction — such as planting more trees, which create a visual barrier — have been taken. Prairie dogs don’t like to go where they can’t see, Wertz said.

It hasn’t been enough.

“We’re looking for something more permanent that would manage them more permanently,” she said.

The public is encouraged to comment on the new management plan through Dec. 3.

After the commenting period closes, an environmental assessment will be conducted, which the public will later be able to comment on before a decision is made.

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