Q: What exactly do you do?
A: We relocate prairie dogs from vacant lots, school ball fields, and airport runway areas to protected grasslands.
There’s a 2001 Santa Fe city law that requires the humane relocation of prairie dogs on lots planned for commercial development.
Q: What happened before 2001?
A: Developers could poison them, shoot them … And they still can, everywhere but here and in Boulder, Colorado. Most commonly, they just bulldoze them as if they weren’t there, even if there are hundreds or thousands.
Q: How long have you been doing this?
A: I’ve been doing it on my own for three years. The work has been pretty consistent. I’m just renewing my contracts with the school district and city airport.
In the past three years, I’ve relocated over 3,000 prairie dogs, and I’ve probably managed projects where another 3,000 were relocated.
Q: Who are your main clients?
A: Development companies or government agencies. I just got a job yesterday for the county juvenile-detention facility, to do the yard there. It shows you how resistant prairie dogs are—that they can survive in juvie.
Q: So how does this process work?
A: A developer calls the city and the city has a map that shows where every prairie-dog town is. If you have prairie dogs, they’ll give you four names of contractors who remove them.
Q: Can I ask how much you charge?
A: We estimate the number of prairie dogs based on the number of burrows. Generally, it’s $50 to $100 per prairie dog. The average site has 30 to 50 prairie dogs, in probably 150 burrows.
We’ll survey, watch the area, sometimes use a GPS and satellite photography. We name the groups—red, blue, green—as we plan to keep and relocate them in these groups.
Q: Then how do you go about catching them?
A: I catch by myself or with my girlfriend. I also have an Iraq-war veteran who’s done really well. My girlfriend is a partner in the business, and she’s a pro at flushing the prairie dogs out of the hole, but she doesn’t like to touch them.
Q: So you start by flushing them out?
A: Yes. We have a pickup truck with a 500-gallon water trailer attached—the kind that’s normally used for concrete. We take a couple of gallons of dish soap and fill the rest of the tank with water.
The trailer has a two-and-a-half-horsepower engine and we use it to pump the mixture through a garden hose.
You’ll see a prairie dog standing there and you drive up to it. You have a cage ready and you put the hose into the hole he went into. The hose either has a nozzle or you deflect it with your hand to create bubbles. The bubbles fill up the tunnels and push the prairie dogs out. It can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes and one to five prairie dogs will come out.
The other day I had 11 babies come out of one hole; it was a record.
Q: So they can’t just run out the other side? It’s not just a tunnel where they can escape?
A: The holes are not all connected. There are usually two to three entrances that lead to one big chamber. They have different tunnels that lead to bathrooms, chambers for food, chambers for hibernation.
We’ll capture 10 to 25 prairie dogs off of 500 gallons of water.
Q: OK, so they come up out of the hole. Then what?
A: You make a bridge with your hands and grab them around the neck and shoulders. Otherwise, they’ll curl around your hand and bite you. Everyone I know who’s done it has been bitten to draw blood, but I haven’t. I wear big electrician gloves made from heavy leather. In the past two years, both of my seasonal employees have been bitten badly on their first day at work.
Sometimes when the prairie dogs come out, they’ll be in a chain and it can be hard. You have a towel and you dry them off; if you have time, you squirt saline in their eyes.
We mark them with food coloring to indicate the family. First on their heads, then, if we run out, we mark their butts.
Q: Are these things big?
A: The typical male weighs about 3 pounds. They look like a cat and have massive teeth. They act like meerkats; they bark at you and at each other.
Q: Is it scary?
A: Sometimes you’ll flush out a ground squirrel, and they’re larger and more nimble. There’s also a danger of flushing a badger, but I have not flushed one myself. Badgers are not aggressive, but if you tried to grab one with your hand it would probably rip your arm off.
Q: Do you provide a guarantee?
A: Well, the developer needs a job-completion form, and that’s what I give them. Then they have up to a year to get the grading done. They don’t want their place to get blacklisted … Some of the local activists would say they won’t shop somewhere that was “built on a prairie-dog graveyard.”
Prairie dogs are really political here. I’ve worked in water rights and wolf reintroduction as well, and prairie dogs are definitely the most inflammatory topic. At first, we had decals on our trucks, but we had to remove them because too many people were bothering us.
Q: Where do you relocate the prairie dogs to?
A: Mostly private land, but when we can arrange it we would rather put them on protected public land, either Bureau of Land Management, national-forest, or state grazing land.
Q: And how do you make them stay where you take them to?
A: You use a back hoe, dig a big hole, almost like a grave, and put a 15-to-25-gallon tree pot upside down in the hole. You bury it, and it has tubes that extend to the surface. We build the starter burrows in a cluster so you can put them into the same groups they started out in (green, blue, etc.).
Each site has 20 to 100 burrows. There are between three and six prairie dogs in each home.
There’s a mesh cage over the tubes where they come to the surface so the prairie dogs can go up to the surface but they can’t run off. They learn they are in a safe place, and after one to three days we take the cages off. Sometimes they dig on their own, but sometimes they stay in the burrow. If we didn’t do this, normally they’d run and be picked off by predators.
Q: How do you find places to relocate them to?
A: It’s hard. Number one, it’s tough to find people who want them, and, number two, you need a low-impact statement to do anything on government land.
In some places, we pay people to take them. We’ve relocated them on Indian pueblo land. And there are six very big-name Hollywood celebrities who have taken prairie dogs.
Having prairie dogs on your land is a very rewarding experience. Besides giving you the opportunity to watch their hilarious antics, their presence attracts hawks, eagles, burrowing owls, other rodents, coyotes, badgers, and some studies have shown that antelope and bison may prefer grazing on prairie-dog towns.
Q: Do you think what you do is worthwhile?
A: Yes, I think it’s a worthwhile task. Many of the people in Santa Fe view this field as some sort of animal-rights issue, that the prairie dogs have the right to live because they were here first, aside from their cuteness. But I view it from an ecological conservation standpoint, as the Gunnison’s prairie dog has lost 95 percent of its habitat over the past 150 years.