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Know the West

Ranchers don't want refugee prairie dogs


SPRINGFIELD, Colo. - Prairie dog relocator Susan Miller climbed the steps of the 70-year-old Baca County courthouse on New Year's Eve day, thinking she was headed to a private meeting with three county commissioners. Instead, she stepped inside to face dozens of angry cattle ranchers.

The ranchers had gotten wind of the meeting and were determined to have their say about Miller's plans to import urban black-tailed prairie dogs to a nearby ranch. The group of about 30 locals represented a fair contingent, considering Baca County in southeastern Colorado boasts only 4,400 residents.

"They ended up taking everyone in the hallway into the courtroom, and I had to address the entire assemblage," says Miller, representing the Boulder-based Southern Plains Land Trust.

Miller could have guessed the crowd's response: After years of poisoning and shooting prairie dogs to get them off their pasture lands, ranchers were not about to welcome a pack of them back - particularly a pack coming from the sprawling Front Range cities.

"How would they like it if someone brought up rattlesnakes and skunks and turned them loose on their property?" asks Baca County Commissioner Don Self. "We've got thousands of (prairie dogs) down here. We definitely don't need them from another county."

No room in the public inn

Biologists estimate prairie dogs have been driven from 98 percent of their range throughout the West. Since 1900, millions of the animals have been poisoned, shot or bulldozed (HCN, 11/11/96). In recent years, thousands have died annually along Colorado's Front Range. A report prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and released last June says that in the last few years, 25 percent of prairie dog habitat in the Denver/Boulder/Fort Collins area has been wiped out - from 32,000 acres down to 24,000 acres.

Last year, the National Wildlife Federation petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The agency should decide soon whether to consider the dog for listing.

Prairie dog habitat is "the most rapidly decreasing habitat we have," says Katie Kinney, a Colorado Division of Wildlife area manager in Loveland. "There is just no public land to house these displaced creatures. It has to be done with private land."

Responding to such sentiments, about 10 activists met at a Boulder pizza joint last summer and decided "we've gotta buy some land," says Susan Miller.

The answer: the two-square-mile Ogden Ranch in Baca County. The activists created the Southern Plains Land Trust and bought the land for $192,000 on Nov. 24. About three quarters of the $45,000 down payment came from private donations, the rest from voluntary mitigation fees developers paid to prairie dog relocators.

The land trust's goal is to create a short-grass prairie preserve, with prairie dogs on up to 20 percent of the property. Miller says the group plans to drill starter holes, place prairie dogs inside and temporarily cap the holes with wire cages to make sure the dogs "commit" - begin to dig complete burrows. She says she can keep the dogs in the preserve with large buffer areas, bounded by plastic barriers and vegetation.

Unwelcome guests

But Baca County would rather the dogs go elsewhere. Residents learned about the preserve when The Denver Post broke the story on Dec. 11 - before the land trust carried out its plans to approach local landowners.

"I think it was rude and crude and indecent that they didn't take the time to visit with the people who would be involved just across the fence," says James "Red" Heath, 71, co-owner of a 10,000-acre cattle ranch that borders part of the land trust property. "That's getting off on the wrong foot in our neighborhood."

Heath, who has ranched in Colorado since 1946, says cattle avoid prairie dog towns because the rodents keep the grass too short to eat. He shrugs off Miller's contentions that prairie dogs churn and fertilize the soil, create more nutritious grazing conditions by pruning the grass, and serve as a "keystone species," important to animals like the endangered black-footed ferret, ferruginous hawks and burrowing owls.

"I have been around prairie dogs all my life, ever since I could chin the side door on the pickup," says Heath, who headed the agriculture department of Lamar Community College for 35 years. "They are not worth a damn. They have no purpose whatsoever that I can see."

Baca County commissioners issued a Dec. 14 resolution urging the Division of Wildlife to deny a needed relocation permit. Local division officials responded by withholding a permit until the DOW creates a statewide relocation policy. The state wildlife commission will rule on a policy in May.

Meanwhile, Miller needs homes for 500 prairie dogs from a development site in Louisville. "A hundred years of being told prairie dogs are pests and vermin - if I was from a ranching background and raised with that folklore, I'd be defending my property like they are," she says.

Even without a relocation permit, Miller says prairie dogs will migrate in eventually. "Sooner or later, there'll be prairie dogs on our property. One way or the other. We'd just like to see it sooner."

Patricia Walsh writes from Longmont, Colorado.

You can contact ...

* Baca County Commissioners, Baca County Courthouse, 316 Main St., Springfield, CO 81073;

* Lauren McCain, spokeswoman for Southern Plains Land Trust, 303/492-4783.