DENVER – The House will debate a measure Monday to introduce endangered black-footed ferrets to specifically kill prairie dogs on government-owned open space in Fort Collins and other communities.
But opponents argue the endangered species status could impede development of infrastructure, water systems and oil and gas development akin to the problems associated with the Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse.
The threatened status of the mouse has been an issue in development and most recently in the recovery efforts of communities devastated by the September floods.
“If we introduce a threatened or endangered species, are we adding a layer of bureaucracy that makes it more difficult for us to move water, more difficult for us to build infrastructure, more difficult for us to be able to access those minerals (below ground)?” asked Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling).
“Those are my concerns,” Sonnenberg said. “In my mind, I can see scenarios where people might want to use this” to obstruct those development efforts.
If the introduction of ferrets sounds like an environmental engineering experiment, it is. There is no evidence that setting ferrets free in the wild would promote reproduction or reduce the colonies of prairie dogs.
House Bill 1267 sponsored by Democratic Rep. Randy Fischer of Fort Collins and Sen. Matt Jones of Louisville would expand a similar measure passed last year that freed ferrets on properties owned by private landowners who chose to participate in the program.
There is no proof that last year’s ferret experiment was successful in reducing prairie dog populations or how many black-footed ferrets survived.
Ferrets die from a lack of prey to eat such as prairie dogs, squirrels, birds, and rabbits, if the animals relocate. They also perish from plague, but the federal government is developing a vaccine to protect ferrets.
There were 53 ferrets released on private land in Pueblo County in 2013 but the experiment won’t be assessed until next fall, said Ken Morgan, private lands program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Some of the bill’s opponent’s wonder if it conflicts with a state government approved program to relocate prairie dogs to areas where they’re needed in Colorado.
“I’m totally in favor of the Fort Collins project and a few more like it on an experimental basis,” said Rep. Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale), adding that he would like to see limitations on the project.
Fischer said the bill is a “somewhat self-limiting” experiment that doesn’t need more clarification and he’d prefer not to limit the number of projects.
As it was done in 2013, this bill would allow introducing the endangered black-footed ferret under Colorado law and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s “safe harbor” agreements, which enlists participants who would not intentionally kill or harass at-risk species.
The legislation would allow government entities to release ferrets on 1,500 acres or more to reduce the prairie dog population. Because of their slender bodies and acute sense of smell, the ferrets can slither down prairie dog tunnels and kill them by biting their necks.
“I think it’s a win, win, win!” exclaimed Rep. KC Becker (D-Boulder), who was appointed to replace Democratic Rep. Claire Levy who resigned in October. If the program doesn’t work, Becker said the ferrets would be relocated outside of the area.
The bill asserts that problematic or ineffectual ferrets can be removed but the cost is unknown, according to the fiscal note. Another hurdle is finding the creatures. As Morgan said, ferrets hide.
The measure has already passed the Democratic-controlled House Agricultural, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee on a 7 to 5 vote over Republican opposition.