PRAIRIE DOGS IN ALBUQUERQUE
by Raymond Watt
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For the city of Albuquerque and its residents, infill development is not only desirable but a stated goal in the city’s growth strategy. Developing the numerous plots of vacant land within the city limits helps bring about greater efficiencies in terms of resources and alleviates urban sprawl.
But while some residents will be getting new homes, many longtime residents will be losing theirs. Often overlooked in the past, the urban population of Gunnison’s prairie dogs has generally not fared well against the developers’ bulldozers.
If you were able to step back 100 years and walk along what are now Montgomery or Wyoming Boulevards, you would have seen a vast prairie dog colony stretching into the distance and supporting perhaps hundreds of thousands of animals. This colony supported a rich ecosystem in which the prairie dogs provided homes for threatened species such as burrowing owls and food for numerous predators. Today, prairie dogs inhabit only about 1-2% of their original range.
As Albuquerque grew, the unbroken colony became increasingly fragmented; roads, homes and commercial development created ever-shrinking islands in which prairie dogs struggled to find food sources and maintain genetic diversity. Without the help of concerned citizens and the volunteers of Prairie Dog Pals (PDP) who have provided food and water, many of these isolated groups would never have survived.
PDP has always sought to work with developers by offering to relocate prairie dogs living on parcels of land slated for blading and construction projects. In many cases, these animals have found refuge on what may be the only undeveloped piece of land in the area. Development spells doom because there is simply nowhere else for them to go.
With advance warning, the situation can be assessed and a plan put in place to capture and ultimately relocate the animals to safe areas far from the city on land owned by sympathetic property owners or on state or tribal lands. Over the years, PDP has, with the aid of biologist Paula Martin, relocated thousands to new locations where they don’t face the continuous rumbling of road traffic or the threat of being crushed under earth-moving equipment.
In the past, not all developers have taken the time or effort to find humane means of removing prairie dogs from their land. PDP volunteer feeders have reported prairie dogs at one homebuilder’s project subjected to herbicides, crushed under construction equipment and even deliberately killed by nail guns used by construction workers. This particular homebuilder lacked compassion for these animals and failed to consider the good publicity that would have flowed from taking some simple steps to have the animals relocated.
Perhaps the worst offender in terms of sheer number of animals killed is Kirtland Air Force Base. The March 5, 2005 edition of the Albuquerque Journal reported, “Kirtland Air Force Base gassed an unknown number of prairie dogs Friday, saying the animals were in a ‘no tolerance’ zone. The area of the base where prairie dogs are not welcome makes up 1 percent of Kirkland’s 52,000 acres.” Prairie dog colonies near buildings such as those in the vicinity of the Truman Gate have been systematically persecuted for years through destruction of habitat and poisoning. The offers of free assistance from PDP to relocate the animals to other areas of the base or even off the base altogether have been ignored. Your tax dollars have not only gone to pay for this poisoning but sadly, even toward the removal of food left for the hungry animals by concerned base employees, according to PDP volunteers.
While many prairie dogs have been lost to careless development, the story is far from bleak for the remaining urban prairie dogs. With a city administration under Mayor Martin Chavez now committed to ending poisoning on city land, prairie dogs have had more media exposure and are not easily dismissed. Within the past few months, local developers with construction plans in mind and prairie dogs on their land have sought humane relocation as the only humane solution .
Kenny Hinkes, president of Center Street Properties, LLC, is deserving of a heartfelt prairie dog “yip” for contacting PDP months in advance of his project beginning at the southeast corner of Tramway and Montgomery NE. The land, which had been the site of a failed restaurant, along with the vacant land to the south, will eventually contain 24 town homes known as Glenwood Lofts.
Hinkes became aware of the animals the first day he surveyed the property and was alerted to PDP through his meeting with the local neighborhood association. “The first thing I wrote down when I learned about all this was that before we put a shovel in the ground or send a truck out there or anything, we were going to have to do something kind with these animals,” he said. Hinkes has sought periodic updates on the PDP trapping and relocation process and has donated funds to help offset the many expenses. So far, at least 54 prairie dogs have been trapped and are awaiting relocation to an established grassland area on Indian lands.
Infill Solutions, a company planning single-family residences at Juan Tabo and Golden Gate and also at Juan Tabo and Brussels, had an estimated 120 animals living on those parcels of land. According to architect Chris Calott, Infill Solutions did not waste any time in trying to do the right thing.
“What we simply knew was that it is the humane thing to do but that any active neighborhood group would really demand that. So we didn’t waste any time. We didn’t want the neighborhood to have to ask us,” said Calott.
Summer is a particularly busy time for PDP volunteers with trapping, land preparation and the ongoing work of caring for isolated urban colonies. Prairie Dog Pals is always in need of donations to meet the many expenses involved in providing new homes for these animals as well as volunteers who can spare a few extra hours a week to help. For information, contact PDP at (505) 296-1937.
For more information on prairie dog relocation, read “Prairie Dogs on the Move” by Nancy Marano, PETroglyphs, Summer 2003.Raymond Watt owns his own photography business and does a lot of nature and wildlife photography. He’s been with Prairie Dog Pals for three years and is currently the treasurer. He is married and lives with three cats, a tortoise and a pond full of fish.
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