Prairie Dog Pals dates back to the late 1980s when a handful of Albuquerque residents started working together to help prairie dogs living in strips of land along Tramway Boulevard.
“They were in trouble for many reasons,” said Liz Green, who founded the group. “In some places they had no vegetation. They were considered pests and poisoned.”
At first, Green and the other volunteers focused on feeding hungry prairie dogs in areas where they did not have access to enough food. They also asked the city to stop poisoning prairie dogs and began what has become the major focus of the organization, trapping prairie dogs from overcrowded colonies and from areas where they are threatened, and relocating them to natural habitats.
In 1991 Liz decided to make things official and drafted articles of incorporation and applied for 501(c)3 non-profit status. She had to sell one of her flutes to pay for the application.
Some of the volunteers involved at the time include Diane Baptista, Bill & Linda Leary, Lynn Lucchetti, Sandy Kingham, Andrea Mulford, Vi Reinders, Terry Ryder, Kay Masters Stitelman, Sylvia Rahner and Steve Alejandro. Kay had shown Dick Westphal the Prairie Dogs at Indian School & Tramway in the fall of 2001 and he was interested in becoming active.
Kay felt Prairie Dog Pals should have a meeting before feeding began in 2002 so one was scheduled at Diane Baptistas’ home. Some of those at this meeting were Liz, Kay, Dick, Lynn, Sandy, Vi, and Yvonne and Ed. Yvonne and Ed were there because they had heard Liz give a talk at Animal Humane, sponsored by Animal Protection of New Mexico, and were interested in becoming active volunteers (Little did they know how active they were to become!!!) They had also met Paula Martin of Prairie Ecosystems at the presentation who would become instrumental in formulating many of PDPâ€™s operating protocols. It was decided to elect officers and Yvonne was asked to be President. She declined, so Liz was elected President and Dick Vice President.
Liz had written the Mayor suggesting that signs be erected along Tramway informing the public of the nature of Prairie Dogs. People had been killing and poisoning them and destroying the water dishes volunteers had put out.
The Mayor agreed and said we should contact the Parks & Recreation Department. Dick agreed to pursue this and after getting approval from the Department of Transportation (DOT owns the land along Tramway and P&R only maintains it) he got suggestions for the copy from volunteers, had the signs printed, and made the frames. In the spring of 2003, he, Ed and Bob Stephenson erected four signs, at strategic locations, along the walking path from Indian school to Montgomery.
Liz had developed a Web Site, which had fallen into disuse, and Dick agreed to look into getting it going again. After sending the current copy to volunteers for suggestions and revisions he contacted Ben Matar, a webmaster. Once it was up and running he turned it over to Ed who has continued to make it an excellent source of information and news. After completing these projects Dick resigned as VP for personal reasons but continued as a volunteer.
On Aug. 30, 2002, things jumped to a new level when Dick witnessed city workers putting poison pellets down prairie dog burrows at Sandia Vista Park. Widespread community objections spurred the city to quickly enact a moratorium on further poisoning of prairie dogs on city land.
Prairie Dog Pals met regularly with city officials for the next three months. And when the prairie dogs came out of hibernation the following spring, Prairie Dog Pals and the city launched a joint collaboration to highlight alternatives to poisoning by flushing and trapping on city park land. The first public effort, at Kennedy Middle School, on April 2, 2003 was a success and helped cement the partnership with the city.
At about the same time, Prairie Dog Pals began working with Prairie Ecosystems Associates, which had been trapping and relocating prairie dogs to safe habitat for years. Prairie Ecosystems Associates secured two relocation sites, one with a private landowner and one on tribal land. More than 1,260 prairie dogs were relocated by the summer of 2003, and Animal Protection of New Mexico gave Prairie Dog Pals the annual Milagro Award for its efforts that year.
Even though by this time the city had stopped poisoning prairie dogs and was working on humane alternatives, Kirtland Air Force Base continued a campaign to eradicate the animals on its property by poisoning them. In the process, 72 percent of the burrowing owls on the base were “lost” between 1999 and 2004. Burrowing owls, a federally protected species, rely entirely on prairie dog burrows for habitat. Prairie Dog Pals has attempted to negotiate humane removal of prairie dogs from the base or to erect a physical barrier to keep the animals from migrating from base property to adjoining city parks such as Bullhead and Phil Chacon., but has been unsuccessful.
In 2004, Forest Guardians, Prairie Dog Pals, and other groups petitioned the federal government to list the Gunnison’s prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act. They later sued and are still pursuing action!
An outbreak of monkey pox, spread by a Gambian rat to a prairie dog and then to a human put a halt on the movement of prairie dogs. The FDA initially banned the capture and relocation of prairie dogs but subsequently allowed relocation albeit under the auspices of a permit. The positive effect was an end of the pet trade as Prairie dogs could no longer be sold. Meanwhile, new FDA regulations that required permits for the relocation of prairie dogs put a temporary halt to Prairie Dog Pals’ rescue efforts, even as calls continued to come in from businesses and individuals asking for help.
In early August 2004, Albuquerque Public Schools poisoned prairie dogs on a soccer field at Hayes Middle School. Media coverage of the horrible deaths those prairie dogs suffered sparked community outrage and led to the creation of a task force of city and APS officials as well as Prairie Dog Pals to find humane solutions to prairie dogs on school property.
That year, Albuquerque Open Space land on the West Mesa was deemed suitable prairie dog habitat and the city approved funding for relocation. In five weeks, Prairie Dog Pals trapped and flushed 174/184 prairie dogs from four school campuses and three adjoining properties where their habitat had been impacted by development or conflicts with people. The group also catalogued those 174 animals with microchips, urine and fecal samples and DNA swabs as part of a University of New Mexico research project on the impact of relocation on Gunnison’s prairie dogs.
Relocations have increased steadily with each passing year. In 2005, Prairie Dog Pals worked with the city to move 526 animals from APS joint-use sites and city parks and to develop additional habitat on the West Mesa. In 2006, that number jumped to 1,065 animals who were moved from city and school sites while another 118 were relocated from private property through collaborations with developers, property managers and homeowners. In 2007, a total of 1,914 prairie dogs were relocated, some of them to habitat made available at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. And in 2008, total captures reached 2,027.
Throughout these efforts, Prairie Dog Pals has continued to search for funding and habitat. The business of relocating prairie dogs is expensive even with volunteers providing much of the labor. There are equipment and material needs as well as food and veterinary care. And while a large number of volunteers continue to feed prairie dogs at various sites around the city and to help with trapping, relocation and other efforts, the organization has grown with the addition of volunteer interns as well as part time paid staff, including two biologists and Ellie, who can do it all!
Prairie Dog Pals volunteers also provide educational outreach to hundreds of people at special events such as the La Montanita Co-op Earth Day festival, Albuquerque’s first annual Fetch-a-palooza event, the Watermelon Mountain Ranch adopt-a-thon and at schools and group meetings. And on Earth Day 2007, the first ever Prairie Dog Pal-ooza drew more than 150 people and raised more than $10,000. Northern Arizona University biology professor Dr. Con Slobodchikoff gave a talk on the language of prairie dogs.
Prairie Dog Pals continues to have a voice in national conservation efforts through its membership in the Prairie Dog Coalition and by signing on to Forest Guardian’s lawsuit to force the federal government to protect the Gunnison’s prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act.
Prairie Dog Pals has been repeatedly recognized and honored for their achievements. In 2008, President Yvonne Boudreaux and title Ed Urbanski were honored with the Conservationist of the Year award from the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance for their dedication.