Early last week, a Santa Fe resident posted pictures of Frenchy's Field in the Santa Fe Bulletin Board group on Facebook. "Frenchy's Field: Photos of dying crabapple trees as well as an area where dead unwatered fruit trees were recently removed. Tax money spent on these trees was wasted. However, the horehound plants whose seeds stick to your socks seem to be thriving."
It wasn't long before other members of the community joined the conversation. The most cited concern: that the city had deliberately stopped watering the trees to funnel money to other projects. But Parks Division Director Richard Thompson says the issue isn't just water, which the city has not withheld, it's prairie dogs.
"Frenchy's Field has a considerably large prairie dog population, which is the problem. Crabapple trees are one of prairie dogs favorite foods, they like to chew on tender-rooted plants like crabapples since they rely on the roots for transport of water, oxygen, nutrients, and minerals," he tells SFR.
It's not surprising that prairie dogs are the culprits behind the damaged trees. Friday afternoon at the park, several prairie dogs ran across the parking lot to take refuge in the dens, several of which are located at the bases of the trees.
Regarding residents' worries that the city has halted irrigation services, Thompson assures that that's not the case. "Irrigation has been temporarily interrupted near the southwest corner of the park near the bridge... Sometimes pipes are damaged or leak but we are working to restore service."
While the Parks Department wishes they could solve the problem immediately, there's not much they can do at the moment. In severe situations, the city pays to remove the excess prairie dog population while they're in season, but according to Victor Lucero, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program Director, the city must first find an approved release site before further action is taken. IPM's regulations included Gunnison's Prairie Dog Ordinance which serves to protect and relocate the diminishing population of Gunnison's prairie dogs in Santa Fe.
When asked if the city planned to remove the prairie dogs within the legal window (from June 15 to about late August), Lucero was unsure.
"Well, the last time we relocated prairie dogs from the park was in either 2013 or 2014, and that way because they were running out into the street. I'm not sure yet if it's necessary to remove them from the park at this point," he says. "Those trees have other stressors on them, like the drought, so we might not need to remove the prairie dogs."
While prairie dog relocation remains unclear, the Parks Department does have a plan for the future of fruit trees at park. As Thompson explains, "This fall we're planning on replacing all of the trees and planting them in [chicken wire] baskets. The baskets help protect the root systems so the prairie dogs can't get to them. Sometimes the roots will grow a little outside of the baskets which the prairie dogs will eat, but enough of the roots are protected so that the tree will be fine."