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How a plan for open space near Stapleton became open season on prairie dogs

How a plan for open space near Stapleton became open season on prairie dogs
Photo: Thinkstock; Photo Illustration: Jay Vollmar

More than most people, perhaps, Stapleton resident Patricia Olson feels a strong connection to animals. A veterinarian and former CEO of the world's largest nonprofit dedicated to animal health sciences, she's helped fund research studies on everything from housecats to sea lions to gorillas.

But even though she lives in a place that was once a vast grassland, Olson had never paid much attention to prairie dogs. Not until a contractor hired by Forest City, the developer in charge of transforming Stapleton from a decommissioned airport into a mixed-use, amenity-stuffed community of tomorrow, began gassing them right around the corner from her home.

A yipping, thriving colony of black-tailed prairie dogs had taken over a vacant stretch of land on the south side of East 26th Avenue, the dividing line between Aurora and Denver on the east side of Stapleton. Like many neighbors, Olson had become so accustomed to the colony that she drove slowly on 26th to avoid mashing the occasional stray darting in and out of the street. But one day, close to Thanksgiving 2011, she came home to find the land being prepped for construction and men sealing up the burrows.

Veterinarian Patricia Olson supports non-lethal solutions to Stapleton’s prairie dog problems — but open-space managers have other ideas.
Mark Manger
Veterinarian Patricia Olson supports non-lethal solutions to Stapleton’s prairie dog problems — but open-space managers have other ideas.
Wildlife ecologist Ashley DeLaup supports non-lethal solutions to Stapleton’s prairie dog problems — but open-space managers have other ideas.
Mark Manger
Wildlife ecologist Ashley DeLaup supports non-lethal solutions to Stapleton’s prairie dog problems — but open-space managers have other ideas.

The men explained to Olson that the area was slated to become a children's playground and "natural park." But first they had to exterminate the prairie dogs.

"I tried to find out why they were doing it and what poison they were using," Olson recalls. "And that's when I got really upset."

Over the next few months, Olson read up on prairie dogs — their behavior and their role as a keystone species in the shortgrass prairie ecosystem, providing food and habitat for a wide range of animals, insects and plants. She learned more than she wanted to know about the poison the men were using: aluminum phosphide, a rodenticide that, when ingested, produces highly toxic phosphine gas, internal bleeding — and, in some cases, an agonizingly slow death.

She also contacted biologists, prairie-dog advocate groups and neighborhood associations, and realized that she was hardly the only one alarmed. Current eradication efforts around the metro area range from the march of RTD's FasTracks light-rail projects through miles of prairie-dog habitat to battles over small colonies abutting ballfields or park land to several areas of conflict within Stapleton itself. One teacher took 23 first-graders on a "nature walk" to another colony in Stapleton, only to find workers packing the burrows with poison — a grimmer lesson in urban-wildlife management than the kids had anticipated. An older class on a field trip discovered abandoned canisters of aluminum phosphide, labeled KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN, lying around the burrows on East 26th Avenue.

Last fall, after photographing some of the canisters herself, Olson filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which regulates the use of aluminum phosphide in pest control. John Scott, manager of the agency's pesticides program, says the investigation is ongoing, but points out that the poison was applied a year before the complaint. "We determined there was no immediate public or environmental potential for harm," he says.

The company switched poisons as a result of the complaints, notes Forest City spokesman Tom Gleason: "Some of the animal activists told us that they thought carbon monoxide was more humane, so we went to that."

Choice of lethal compounds aside, Olson thought the entire procedure smacked of bad policy. A recent study in Science suggests that prairie dogs that lose close kin disperse further, possibly in search of their lost relatives; sure enough, in recent months new burrows have appeared on 26th, flanking either side of the playground under construction. And what's the point, Olson wondered, of creating a "natural" park in which one of the most essential natural components has been removed?

"If you poison them, they go looking for Aunt Mildred and disperse," Olson says. "That's exactly what happened. It's not effective. It's not humane. So what are they doing?"

Despite the outcry, developers and park managers are doing what they've always done with Colorado's prairie dogs: waging war on them as if dealing with mosquitoes or noxious weeds. Ranchers have long regarded the lowly rodent as a flea-bitten, grass-stripping, plague-infested nuisance, and that distorted characterization has strongly shaped how urban as well as rural colonies are treated. For a keystone species, prairie dogs have virtually no protection from annihilation, particularly on private land; with little fuss, they can be shot, poisoned or even buried alive with bulldozers. State law makes it extremely difficult to relocate them across county lines, and surveys indicate that their habitat along the Front Range is becoming increasingly fragmented.

Yet few agencies that deal with wildlife seem inclined to develop a long-range management plan for prairie dogs, preferring an exterminate-as-needed approach. Both Denver Parks and Recreation and the Stapleton Development Corporation have drafted detailed management plans but failed to fully implement them. The disparity between what was conceived on paper and the emerging reality is particularly acute in Stapleton, which promised its residents extensive open space and natural areas and now is redefining a notion of "natural" that may be mostly devoid of one of the neighborhood's most industrious natives.

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13 comments
twofats
twofats

Ever see a horse with a broken leg from a prairie dog hole?  They aren't quite so cute, still diseased but not as cute.

TRUTHBETOLD
TRUTHBETOLD

Whats great is that the adjacent property owners Run off anyone that has an interest in nature and wants to see them or could be supportive of there cause. My wife and I went up there several years ago and walked across the field to see them  and had some lady come honking her horn and screaming at us for 20+ minutes that she was calling the cops -Great way to educate the public !!

foopedlo
foopedlo

THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE ON THIS ONCE PRISTINE CONTINENT, THE EUROPEAN, VIS A VIS, MANIFEST DESTINY, HAS PROCEEDED TO REMAKE PARADISE ON EARTH INTO HIS OWN GRAVEN IMMAGE, THE IMMAGE OF RUN AMOCK CORPORATISM; HIS MISBEGOTTEN SELF- IMPOSED FIAT IS TERMED "PROGRESS," WHEREAS HE HAS RAGED AGAINST DECENCY AND COMMON SENSE IN HIS WAR AGAINST NATURA TO THE EXTENT THAT HIS LEGACY TO POSTERITY IS UBIQUITOUS, INDESTRUCTIBLE POLYCHLORINATED BIPHENYL (PCB) CONTAMINATION...

Zato
Zato

Prairie dogs are amazing animals especially if you've taken the time to study and understand their awesome and unique niche  in the development of a healthy prairie ecosystem. But there's a bigger picture here: When do we decide to stop destroying what makes The West the best? Why do many us call Denver home, are drawn to the mountains, the raw wild prairies? If you take it away little by little you forget why you're here. Let's remember a quote from the godfather of the National Park System, John Muir: "These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator topcommentereditor

i'd like to publish some of these letters in our print edition, ideally with your full name. e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com if that's okay.

dltaylor1953
dltaylor1953

I cycle through Stapleton and had enjoyed the entire wildlife experience.. prairie dogs draw the birds of prey. I vote for eco diversity, not something "PLANNED".

Marcus Netters
Marcus Netters

For what? There are plenty of buildings within the city they could buy and make into whatever including old blockbuster videos?

mmjfreedomusa
mmjfreedomusa

The Government PAYS Sheriffs, in Jefferson Parish Louisiana ( Steven Seagal's friends) to CRUELLY shoot nutria. Close enough to a prairie dog for me. Why is that not a big deal? If I had to choose, maybe our law enforcement should start shooting prairie dogs INSTEAD of DOGS and PEOPLE! 

df5628
df5628

@twofats Nobody has ever seen that happen. Horses don't stick their legs in holes unless people make them.

BackOffImStarving
BackOffImStarving topcommenter

@Zato Yep.  It's also really awesome how they can transmit plague, tularemia, and monkeypox. But we can overlook those things just as long as they stay cute and fuzzy.

johnbauman1965
johnbauman1965

People spread AIDS, lets kill all the people...c'mon man, developers and corporations will drive us to the death of Earth.. for money.  Coming from flatland, it is really sad to see this state trying to develop itself like IL.  The PD treatment is a symbol of this cavalier attitude towards  nature... HEY IT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO REVERSE PROGRESS - so some jackass developer gets rich. Don't be a sucker.

Zato
Zato

@BackOffImStarving 

Read the article and read the studies: you'd pretty much have to rub an infected dead prairie dog corpse on your body to get those diseases. You have a better chance of going into the mountains and being struck by lightening five times in a year then catching the plague from a prairie dog. It's a non issue. 

 
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