By Gloria Dickie
While many Boulder residents were busy bailing out their basements on Sept. 13, a small group of workers braved the rain on Highway 52 to pluck waterlogged prairie dogs out of stagnant flood waters.
“They were stranded there — entire colonies were underwater — and these prairie dogs were just laying out in the road,” said Ghia Speakman, program manager for the Prairie Dog Coalition at The Humane Society of the United States.
Of the 200 to 300 prairie dogs that comprise the Highway 52 colony, rescuers were only able to pull 49 dogs from the muddy waters there. Other nearby colonies were completely inaccessible.
With towns and cities struggling to rebuild, Speakman noted prairie dogs — often considered a nuisance by farmers — were not a top priority for many, making it difficult to assess the toll Colorado’s floods have had on the region’s wildlife.
However, state officials offered some predictions based on other natural disasters.
“Wildlife respond to floods pretty similar to how they respond to fires — which is big-game animals and large mammals will get out of the way, and our small animals, like bunnies and prairie dogs, [will] be lost in the flooded areas,” said Jennifer Churchill, a spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
On Thursday, the PDC released 48 of its refugees into St. Vrain State Park — a region that saw its native prairie dog colonies wiped out by the flood. The final, 49th prairie dog was taken to Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center near Lyons, Colo. because she had a wound the size of a silver dollar on her stomach.
But that golden-haired prairie dog was a standout among Greenwood’s charges. According to Jenny Bryant, volunteer and outreach coordinator for the Center, most of the two-dozen patients resulting from the flood were baby squirrels.
In the early fall, squirrels give birth to their second litter of pups. Last week’s downpour meant many newborns were washed out of their nests, into the gutters and onto the streets.
Heavy rains, too, can adversely impact songbirds.
“Their food sources are either gone or contaminated, so they’re starting to starve to death,” Bryant said, adding birds can also succumb to hypothermia when feathers are unable to absorb all the water.
She advised the public to put out food for the birds, keep the seed clean and supply a source of clean water.
But clean water isn’t a concern only for birds — according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, aquatic life may, in fact, be the hardest hit by floods. Strong flows stir up dirt and silt in waterways, making it impossible for fish to breathe.
“We definitely expect some fish loss,” Churchill said, adding their division would be reviewing the state’s rivers, ponds and creeks over the coming weeks, but no hard data would be available for months.
Brian Harris, manager at Rocky Mountain Anglers located on Arapahoe Avenue, noted that despite being unable to fish Boulder Creek, the business hadn’t taken a dive. However, he did expect to see a greater impact in the coming year.
In Boulder proper, beyond a few reports of stranded deer and an apparent mountain lion sighting at 6th and College last Sunday, the city’s larger mammals escaped largely unscathed.
Valerie Matheson, an urban wildlife conservation coordinator for the City of Boulder, noted the sow and two bear cubs who had been frequenting the city limits in the week leading up to the flood had been spotted safe and sound since.
“I think animals, actually, have much better senses than humans and they have a good idea when something’s coming,” Churchill said. “A lot of animals do know to get out of the way and, luckily for us, they’ve evolved to do so, so we can keep having all of this great wildlife in Colorado.”