Spread of prairie dog towns concerning residents

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks A prairie dog stands watching traffic on Grand Avenue as it zips by Tuesday.

Sharna Johnson

The conveniences of town life may be appealing, but there are certain kinds of residents who find they just aren’t welcome.

Residents in the area between Seventh Street and Grand Avenue between Upsilon and Cameo Streets say they are being invaded by hundreds of prairie dogs.

Whether the football-sized rodents are digging holes, sipping from backyard water dishes, hanging out on the greens of the little league field or taking a dip in the municipal pool, they aren’t wanted.

Yolanda Cortez said she worries for her elderly mother, who now has prairie dogs living inside the fence of her backyard.

“They were inside the fence drinking (from my mother’s birdbath). I thought it was our little puppy, but nope it was a prairie dog,” she said.

While Cortez said the animals are not confrontational and “they just take off running,” when they see people, she and her family worry that they carry diseases that could harm her mother or the grandchildren.

“They look like big rats. They’re gross,” she said.

On the north side of Seventh Street, Trinidad Ortiz said in the last year the rodents moved across the four-lane road and began colonizing the area behind the American Legion Post where picnics and outdoor activities are held.

Their presence hampers events and causes concern, he said.

“We just want them removed, we don’t want to hurt them,” he said. “They’re all over that field. They scurry across the road.”

Cortez said the prairie dog town started behind her mother’s home on an undeveloped section of private property owned by Dr. Ali Ghaffari.

She said she approached Ghaffari in recent months and he said he would look into solutions, but nothing has changed.

Ghaffari said he has owned the property for 23 years and the prairie dogs have always been there.

“What you want me to do with a live animal like that? I hope that (people) don’t blame it on me, because I didn’t bring them in the first place.”

He said he’s not sure what to do about their growing colony and they don’t really bother him, but he’s open to ideas.

“I sure don’t mind them to be there,” he said, however, “Maybe it’s time to do something about it if the neighbors really are concerned. Us and the city together, maybe we all can come together and figure something out.”

City Manager Joe Thomas said cooperation from private property owners is required for the city to take a role in addressing prairie dog communities.

“They can’t be classified as vicious or dangerous or anything like that. There is an argument to be made that they do carry disease, but private property issues being what they are, it’s very difficult to deal with it without the request of the property owner,” he said.

While prairie dogs themselves are not protected, Thomas said care must be taken not to impact animals which are protected that cohabit their colonies such as black-footed ferrets and burrow owls.

Parks and Recreation Director Bill Bizzell said prairie dogs have begun to migrate to Potter Park, which lies west of Ghaffari’s property.

Workers have erected a black barrier between the park and Ghaffari’s field but it hasn’t been effective.

Bizzell said prairie dogs are destructive and have begun burrowing into Beachum Field where little league games are played and in other green areas of the park.

Some even ventured into the city pool at Potter Park, he said.

“It’s beginning to become an issue with us and we don’t know how to control it,” he said.

“We’re at a quandary with what to do. I know there’s special interest groups out there that want to protect these animals, we just can’t continue allowing them to destroy our open spaces.”

While no one in the area seems to want to exterminate the prairie dogs, they are left without solutions.

“If we could get some of those groups that love them and want to relocate them … I would sign the papers,” Bizzell said.

Thomas said similar issues exist on West Seventh Street near the city’s civic center, but when the city takes measures to discourage the prairie dogs there, they just move to private property then return when the coast is clear.

“Prairie dogs by their nature don’t always obey fences or signs,” he said.