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Dog Eat Dog

It's a sunny morning, with no clouds overhead--a perfect day for shooting prairie dogs. Mark Mason is dressed in Carhart coveralls and a camouflage cap emblazoned with the logo of his group, the Varmint Militia. Patches decorate his khaki jacket: One has the NRA insignia and the other, which bears the image of a prairie dog, is a token from the Varmint Hunter's Association, a national organization whose members shoot small animals for sport.

Four men meet at the Lochbuie Texaco station before driving out to the Fort Lupton ranch where today's shoot is to happen. But after the contents of one driver's truck fall out of the back, he and his passenger must turn around and pick up the debris that has spilled into the intersection of two county roads. Mason and his companion, Oliver, keep driving. Their two friends never show.

The owner of the ranch has requested Mason's pro bono extermination because he wants to prevent the prairie dogs on his neighbor's land from encroaching onto his. After Mason and Oliver pull up to the end of a dirt road on the ranch, they unload the brown Ford Bronco stocked with guns and ammo.

Oliver is also clad in camouflage, and his ears are lined with silver hoops. He puts on protective ear muffs and sits down at a bench. Oliver loads his Savage rifle with a .22 caliber bullet, cocks the gun, looks through the scope and...BOOM! From his vantage point of 175 yards, all he can see is the dust from where his bullet skimmed the ground. He missed.

Mason, who has been shooting from a rifle propped on the hood of the Bronco, takes a turn at the shooting bench. He has better luck. "I got him in the head," he announces. "You can tell when you hit 'em in the head, because their legs kick."

He's right. Mason crosses the barbed-wire fence separating the ranch from the neighboring property and finds his kill. He bends down and rubs the prairie dog's full belly. The pregnant female is lying on her back, in the last pose she will ever strike. Half her head is missing. Fresh blood glistens in the midday sun.

"We are a true militia," Mason says, "because we are being called to defend farmers from the true invaders: the prairie dogs."

Mason, who builds custom homes when he's not killing prairie dogs, was inspired to establish the Varmint Militia after watching a Nucla prairie-dog-killing contest; the first such contest was the July 1990 Nucla Top Dog World Championship, sponsored by the Ten Ring Gun Club. The event drew more than 100 "hunters" from eleven states to the tiny Western Slope town, where contestants each paid a $100 entry fee; $7,000 in prizes were awarded, and the rest of the proceeds were donated to the ailing mining town. Each participant was allowed fifty shots a day, and by the end of the two-day shooting spree, almost 3,000 prairie dogs had been slain.

Mason thought the concept was "pretty cool"--so cool that in 1993 he brought his daughter, who was eight at the time, and his nine-year-old son, to another Nucla contest. Because the shooting captured the attention of his kids--his daughter shoots an SKS assault rifle--Mason decided to start his own shooting contests and market them to children, but the fliers he displayed at gun shows attracted only adults. In 1995 he held a Nucla Tune-Up Prairie Dog Shoot in preparation for that year's contest, which was canceled because the prairie dog colony had been wiped out by plague. "That put us on the map, because no one had anywhere left to go shooting," says Mason.

He named his group the Varmint Militia, he says, because he "wanted to piss off the animal-rights activists. Of course animals don't have any rights. Just look at what they do to each other. They eat each other."

In July 1997, the Colorado Wildlife Commission limited the number of prairie dogs that could be killed by any one shooter in a contest to five. That doesn't make for much of a competition, according to Mason, who says shooters typically kill 100 prairie dogs over the course of a two-day match. Though the Varmint Militia no longer holds contests, its members still shoot the animals for farmers and ranchers who want to get rid of them. It's a public service they perform for free.

"These animal-rights people elevate animals to the level of humans, but animals are simple creatures. The animal-rights people attack us on an emotional level by saying we're killing the 'poor, cute prairie dogs,'" Mason says, emphasizing the last four words in a mocking, singsong voice. "They don't attack us on the basis of facts. The fact is that we're helping provide a balance in nature. If you say my shooting isn't a part of nature, you're ignorant. Man is a part of nature, and so is anything man does."

Mason says the dead animals are not wasted because scavengers eat the carcasses left behind after a shoot. "We call ourselves the fast-food delivery service of the plains."

He hails his shooting as a "high-end" sport. Mason's two Savage rifles, which take .25-06 Ackley improved cartridges, each cost $430. Ammunition for a day of shooting can run him $50. His rifles, however, are on the low-end, concedes a modest Mason: Some prairie dog shooters spend upwards of $1,500 on their guns.

Varmint Militia events typically attract all of the group's forty members. Some save the prairie dog pelts as souvenirs; Mason wears the tail of a black-tailed prairie dog on his hat band. At gun shows, the militia displays a stuffed prairie dog mascot named Daisy. "I don't dislike prairie dogs," Mason says. "If it was legal to own a prairie dog, I'd probably have a couple. I think they're cute and cuddly." He insists he isn't driven by blood lust, but rather by a desire to be the best shooter he can be. "When I blow up a prairie dog and see blood, I know I've got a clean kill," he says. "I don't want to wound a prairie dog, I want to kill it with one shot. It's a hell of a lot more humane than poisoning them."

"The seminal moment in history was when we exposed that contest killing," says Dave Crawford of the Varmint Militia's 1995 event. Crawford is the director of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, a nonprofit organization that boasts a membership of 1,600 people.

Colorado's movement to save prairie dogs started with the birth of an organization called Prairie Dog Rescue. The group formed in 1989, after a plague wiped out 95 percent of the prairie dog colony at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. The sylvatic plague, a bacterial disease first discovered in the United States in 1899, is carried by fleas, which spread it to prairie dogs. The natural killer wipes out prairie dog colonies so quickly that it rarely has time to spread to humans; of the 42 human plague cases the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has documented since 1957, only six were linked to prairie dogs. (Though house pets such as cats and dogs have some immunity to the plague, they can carry the disease by hosting plague-infected fleas.)

After the plague, people realized something needed to be done to ensure the vitality of the prairie dogs, says Dave Seery, a wildlife biologist at the arsenal. Prairie Dog Rescue was the first prairie dog relocation group in the state.

Relocating prairie dogs is a complex endeavor. There's the flushing technique, in which rescuers pour soapy water into prairie dog holes; when the animals emerge, they're scooped up by activists who wash the irritating but biodegradable soap out of the animals' eyes before putting them into cages to be transported to their new homes. There's the old-fashioned live-trapping technique, in which rescuers set bait for the animals; after a prairie dog is safely inside his cage, a trap door shuts. Then there's the vacuuming technique, in which prairie dogs are sucked out of their holes by an industrial-strength vacuum (the same equipment used to clean out sewers and city pipes) and deposited into cages.

Susan Miller, owner of the nonprofit Wild Places prairie dog relocation company, prefers the live trapping method because it's the most humane. Miller, who relocated prairie dogs for the City of Boulder as an employee of the mountain parks division, started her company in the fall of 1996 with the intention of educating developers about how they could plan their office parks and housing complexes around prairie dogs--without having to kill them. She soon became overwhelmed with the demand for relocation.

Most of the calls--she gets five or six a day--come from people who live or work next to prairie dog colonies that are slated for development. Miller then calls developers and offers her service--often for free. Developers can't just pick up prairie dogs with a bulldozer and set them on land next to the development, because the animals instinctually return to their burrows. When construction begins at the site of a prairie dog colony, "they don't just burrow next door," says Miller. Developers poison the animals to ensure that they all die before construction, lest a mutilated prairie dog or two be left behind for onlookers to see (as has happened with some development projects). "That would be a PR nightmare for developers," Miller says. Last year, when the poisoning of a Louisville colony drew the ire of protesters, the developer, Koelbel and Company--which had already decimated most of the 1,500-dog colony--paid Wild Places $2,500 to move the rest of the prairie dogs off the Centennial Valley Business Park.

It was the Varmint Militia's 1995 event in Brighton that opened Lauren McCain's eyes to the prairie dog issue. After protesting the contest, McCain, a political-science graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, began studying the animals. "I became so fascinated by prairie dogs, and I learned what a crisis the situation really is," she says.

McCain's pursuit of all things prairie dog taught her the importance of the animals to the grasslands. "Scientists have studied the impact of prairie dogs on ranch land and have found that prairie dogs pose no significant competition for foraging with cattle," McCain says. "The grass the prairie dogs eat grows back more nutritious and digestible. There's a synergistic relationship between the prairie dogs and the cattle that follow them around."

McCain's awareness of the problems facing prairie dogs heightened last spring, when the city of Lafayette allowed 2,000 prairie dogs to be killed to make way for development. Because of the visibility of the Lafayette and Louisville colonies--they were popular with birdwatchers who came to see the owls and raptors the prairie dogs attracted--those exterminations drew unprecedented press attention.

And prairie dog proponents were growing more desperate because the options for relocating the animals were starting to run out. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal stopped accepting prairie dogs in October 1997 after it reached its capacity for the colonies. Around the same time, a plains conservation area in Parker that had been set aside for prairie dogs crumbled under the bulldozer.

"Those events really mobilized people and woke them up to what growth and development is doing," says McCain, who dubs 1998 the "year of the prairie dog."

Crawford now estimates that there are "thousands of people interested in helping prairie dogs in this area." In the last decade, several national and local environmental organizations have formed specifically to conserve prairie dog habitats or have come out in support of the prairie dog cause. In addition to Rocky Mountain Animal Defense there's the Louisville Environmental Action Forum, the Prairie Dog Advocates, the Boulder County Nature Association, Citizens Eco-Watch of Colorado, the Great Plains Restoration Council, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, the Fund for Animals, the National Wildlife Federation, Animal Rights Mobilization, the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Humane Society of the United States and the now-defunct Prairie Eco-System Conservation Alliance. Earlier this month, a political action committee called Political Voice for Animals was formed to rally animal-rights activists in support of legislation that helps animals and to decry laws that harm them.

After the Lafayette protests, several activists--many of them members of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense--wanted to intensify their efforts to solve the prairie dog predicament. Every other week, several people in the "prairie dog advocacy circle" started meeting at Pizza Colóre, a restaurant on Boulder's University Hill.

In August, eight of them formed the Southern Plains Land Trust and started looking for available--and affordable--property in Colorado where they could relocate prairie dogs displaced by Front Range development. McCain became president of the group. The other members, who hail from Boulder, Clear Creek County, Denver, Colorado Springs and Albuquerque, decided on a $192,000, 1,280-acre ranch in Baca County.

The group raised $40,000 for the down payment by calling on family and friends. Word spread, and donations in $15, $30 and $50 increments came pouring in. The group also received $2,500 from developers--$875 from Village Homes and the remainder from Front Range developer Neil Boucher.

In addition to being inexpensive, the ranch they bought is also near the Comanche National Grasslands. Once the prairie dogs are nestled in their new burrows, says Susan Miller, who is also a member of the Southern Plains Land Trust, she hopes the group can join the grasslands governing board and boost its policy for accepting more prairie dogs on the public land.

Members of the Land Trust--which has a mailing list of 2,000 supporters--have been criticized for trying to relocate the animals halfway across the state rather than keeping them on the Front Range. But the Colorado Division of Wildlife requires that in order to be relocated, a prairie dog colony must be established on 640 acres of land.

"I don't want to see every prairie dog from the Front Range move to Baca County. I want to see them stay in my backyard," says Miller. "But there is no way we could raise the money to buy 640 acres in Boulder County, or even find a vacant 640 acres there."

The sale of the Baca County land was completed in November. "Our land in Baca County is meant to be a receiving site for one large colony, not a dumping ground," says Miller. "Everyone sees this as a railroad conduit from the Front Range down to Baca County, with prairie dogs in every train car. But that's just not true."

In Baca County (pronounced Back-a by the locals), roadside signs proclaim that "nothing satisfies like beef."

It's a land where ranchers remove their hats when they speak to a lady, where folks leave their trucks unlocked with the keys in the ignition. Ranchers and farmers can sidle up to any truck-stop counter and know everyone seated next to them. But over their coffee, patrons of the Longhorn Steakhouse on the northern edge of Springfield talk about the trouble headed their way: prairie dogs.

The manager at a local motel warns, "You don't know country folk. They'll shoot you over prairie dogs."

"It's my opinion that ranchers will shoot the prairie dogs once they're set loose," says Baca County Commissioner Charlie Wait. Some ranchers, he says, have requested to be present when the animals are "unloaded."

James "Red" Heath has mourned the loss of cattle to blizzards; he's watched, helpless, as droughts dried up his wheat, corn and alfalfa; he's discovered the remains of calves after coyotes completed their midnight marauding. But he isn't about to stand by while a group of environmentalists tries to introduce prairie dogs to property that abuts the Baca County ranch his family has owned since 1946.

Heath's commanding presence is made even more imposing by the added inches of his cowboy boots. He speaks slowly and deliberately. The 72-year-old rancher has been raising Angus beef since he was ten, when his daddy got him started in the family business. Prairie dogs have always caused him heartache.

"I'm in the grass business. My cattle have to eat the grass so I can produce an edible commodity to feed the American people. You can't convince a cow to graze where a prairie dog has eaten," Heath explains. "When I first heard about this idea of bringing more prairie dogs here in early December, it was a shock treatment to my system. Two or three friends of mine told me, 'It looks like you're going to get some prairie dogs.' That changes your appetite pretty quick."

Heath is somber when he speaks of the impact prairie dogs will have on his livelihood--a livelihood already threatened by a monopolistic grain industry and depressed grain prices. The profession of farming has declined considerably since its heyday in the 1930s, when Baca County's population peaked at 10,570 residents. As of July 1997, there were only 4,584 people left in the county. The median household income there is $18,602, compared to $30,140 for the entire state. According to the 1990 census, 19 percent of the residents in Baca County lived below poverty, while statewide the poverty level was 11.7 percent.

Sometimes, Heath says, farmers spend far more money on machinery and feed than they earn from the crops they sell. Other times, Lady Luck just doesn't smile on them. "Rains can come ten to fifteen miles away and miss one man's farm. Almost every year here, we see a farm for sale. But that's true everywhere, from California to the East Coast. I've been through some hard times to pay for this land. It's not easy to make a living in agriculture today."

Heath says he's "spent thousands and thousands of dollars trying to get rid of prairie dogs, and they're still winning the battle. I've been around prairie dogs my whole life, and I haven't found a useful purpose for them yet." And with its annual challenges of harsh winters, dry summers and spring electrical storms, Heath says, Baca County doesn't need any more prairie dogs.

Not surprisingly, the folks who sold the property to the Southern Plains Land Trust aren't too popular in Baca County. Frank Ogden and his family, who own ranch land elsewhere in the county, sold the land for a pittance, Heath says. He concedes that the corner parcel of land--bounded by county roads and the 15,500-acre property he co-owns with his mother- and brother-in-law--isn't big enough for ranching. Still, he's not happy that the Ogdens sold the property to become a "dumping ground" for prairie dogs from the Front Range. "People don't speak much to that family anymore," Heath says. The Ogdens "knew what these people were intending to do with the land."

Baca County's three commissioners all attest to the unpopularity of the Ogdens and say the couple left town right after the sale went through, hoping to return after the dust had settled. Mrs. Ogden (who refused to supply Westword with her first name) would say only that she's received mixed reactions from the town's folk. "The people who are unhappy about this have prairie dogs on their own land and have never done anything about it," she says. "That's all I have to say."

"To some people, this whole prairie dog thing is a laughing matter, but to us, it's dead serious. I try to get along. I try to be a good neighbor, and I expect the same from them," Heath says of his future neighbors from the Southern Plains Land Trust.

Most of all, Heath resents the fact that they didn't seek his input before deciding to settle beside him. "It's rude, crude and indecent."

With his ponytail, turtleneck and hiking boots, Robert Ukeiley, an environmental lawyer from Boulder and a member of the Southern Plains Land Trust, looks decidedly out of place in front of the Bar 4 Corral at the southern edge of Springfield.

According to Ukeiley, prairie dogs are the scapegoats for Baca County's deeper problems. "We have nothing to do with the ranchers' economic collapse," he says. "They're picking something to blame, and it's the prairie dog. We didn't collapse the Asian economy, we didn't overgraze their land, we didn't destroy their aquifer, and we're not responsible for wheat prices being the same here as they were in the Fifties."

Ukeiley is eventually joined by fellow land-trust member Nicole Rosmarino. She points to the yellow snakeweed that carpets the Land Trust's 1,280 acres. When consumed by expectant cows, the noxious weed is thought to induce abortions, she says. Prairie dogs help out by eating it.

For that reason and many more, prairie dogs are a vital part of the plains, she says. And the fact that the animals don't breed like rabbits should put to rest any fears of a prairie dog population explosion, says Rosmarino. "Prairie dogs only breed once a year, and their average-sized litter is three to four pups. They even practice their own population control. The females practice infanticide on each other's young."

Off in the distance is a ramshackle house the land-trust members want to restore. Rosmarino and her friends will spend the weekend removing low-lying barbed-wire fencing from the property so that antelope can roam without getting hurt. They have already spent countless hours on the prairie dog cause--from raising money to purchase the land to pleading with the state legislature to vote down a law that would stall their ability to transport the critters.

Lauren McCain is also visiting the property, where she hopes to secure a place for non-human predators, such as the endangered black-footed ferret, the ferruginous hawk and the swift fox, to hunt prairie dogs. Introducing more prairie dogs to the southern plains is "one part of a holistic approach to preserving the prairie eco-system," she says.

"People want us to say how we're going to contain our prairie dogs," McCain says. "For one thing, they're not our prairie dogs--they're wildlife. For another, the prairie dogs that are on the neighbors' land now will serve as containment because the animals are very territorial and won't spread to another colony."

Just in case, Miller has ideas about how to keep the animals from spreading to neighboring ranch land: Vinyl barriers could be constructed where their property borders adjacent ranches; tall vegetation could be planted as a natural barrier; sandy, collapsible soil that isn't strong enough for burrowing could be placed near the colonies, or electric wires could train the prairie dogs to stay in place.

"We can never say they won't spread to a neighbor's land," she says. "There's that occasional Houdini that will find his way across a barrier. But we're willing to control them. If they get on a neighbor's property, we could relocate them back to ours by humanely trapping them, or we could pay the rancher for lethal control of the animals."

In February, a cluster of men in black cowboy hats--ranchers from Baca County--gathered at the State Capitol to speak on behalf of proposed legislation that would make it illegal to transport "destructive rodent pests" to other counties without prior approval from the receiving county's commissioners.

The Colorado State Legislature first addressed the prairie dog problem in 1927, with a law encouraging mass prairie dog exterminations. The law, which remains on the books and is still cited by legislators, refers to prairie dogs as "such a grave and immediate menace to the agricultural, horticultural and livestock industries of the state that large numbers of the inhabitants engaged in such industries in the localities so infested are in great and immediate danger of being impoverished and reduced to want by the destruction of their crops." Further, "the situation is so serious and the emergency so urgent that public necessity demands that prompt, efficacious, and summary action be taken under the police power of the state to control, suppress and eradicate such rodents in the areas infested by them."

That law, prairie dog advocates might say, only codifies the anti-prairie-dog sentiments that have prevailed throughout most of this century. McCain attributes ranchers' long-held belief that the animals compete with cattle for grass to a 1902 report by C.H. Merriam, who headed the U.S. Biological Survey, which concluded that prairie dogs eat between 50 and 75 percent of the grass on which cattle graze. But McCain says the report was based on Merriam's observations, not on any quantitative data. And that, she says, "launched a government-sponsored prairie dog poisoning campaign."

The Biological Survey supplied farmers and ranchers with poison-soaked grain that was left for prairie dogs to feed--and die--on. Poisoning also took place on public lands and Indian reservations. The favored method was to use grain soaked in strychnine. Today ranchers and developers typically poison prairie dogs with zinc phosphide, a powder otherwise known as rat poison.

At the February hearings, the majority of House Agriculture Committee members, many of them ranchers and farmers themselves, were unsympathetic to the prairie dog supporters.

Representative Matt Smith, R-Grand Junction, engaged in a verbal duel with Rosmarino, who was explaining the threat to the black-tailed prairie dog. "I'm a little confused by the testimony at this point," Smith said. "You're worried about the black-tailed prairie dog located in Boulder County because of the threat of a bulldozer, and someplace the plague fits in, and we're addressing a bill...that talks about the county commissioners' right to approve the relocation of prairie dogs someplace out in eastern Colorado...My question simply is, have you spoken to your local government officials in Boulder city, county, whoever's operating the bulldozer? What's their response?"

Laying on the sarcasm, Rosmarino responded, "Well, Representative, I don't live in Boulder, so I haven't spoken to them lately. I live in Clear Creek County."

Some legislators tried to make a mockery of the animal-rights activists, but some of the animal-rights activists made a mockery of themselves. Take one Ms. Kathy Boucher, the wife of a prairie-dog-friendly developer and the member of Prairie Dog Advocates, a group that recently formed in the Denver metro area. The tall woman with long blond hair strode to the witness chair in a purple leather jacket and miniskirt and proceeded to push for the prairie dog relocation plan. While Boucher was reading from a letter she had prepared, her voice rose on the last syllable of every sentence, as though it were a question.

"Everybody's calling. And everybody's in the fields. They want to help. They want to know. They want an alternative. This is not a foolproof plan. It's not set in stone that it will be perfect, but it's the only one we have so far. We came up with it ourselves, with our own money. In this country, if we had never moved unless we had a foolproof plan, we'd all be back in the colonies on the East Coast. We're great because we come up with ideas--we go to work, we try them. If you pass this bill and we cannot try, you're saying in effect it will not work. But we can try and then see...As for the rest of this letter, it's about stumbling across poisoned prairie dogs and my son holding me accountable. I am accountable because I'm a grownup, but now you're in my nightmare. You're all accountable, too, for this animal. I think you could at least take a giant leap of faith in us as people, as Colorado people, and let us try. Please?"

Returning to his earlier question, Smith asked Boucher if prairie dog advocates had considered alternatives to moving the animals halfway across the state.

"Yes sir, I think everyone's been trying that for a long time," Boucher said. "They go to endless meetings with endless people. We write letters until we don't even know what we're saying anymore."

By the end of the four-hour hearing, Baca County claimed victory: Senate Bill 111 passed 10 to 3. More than two weeks later it received final approval from the House. The bill is now headed to Governor Bill Owens, who is likely to sign it.

But Baca County ranchers still can't rest easy. Now it looks as if the federal government may be ready to watch the backs of some prairie dogs.

In the early 1900s, 100 million acres of prairie dog habitat graced the Great Plains region that stretched from Mexico to Canada. A recent study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that only 768,000 acres of prairie dog habitat remain, and the number is decreasing each day. The agency is considering listing the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species.

If the animal receives federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, that protection would override any state laws granting county commissioners local control over their prairie dog populations. Once the wildlife service proposes to protect a species, the public has a chance to comment on the proposal, and the agency responds to citizens' concerns before making a final decision. If people are still unhappy after a listing is made, they can petition the wildlife service to take the species off the list.

Federal protection--which could take at least a year to secure--may provide the compromise both sides seem unable to reach on their own. The Southern Plains Land Trust's Susan Miller says that if the species is protected, the federal regulation likely won't be as restrictive as it is for other animals. "My guess is that if the prairie dogs receive the listing, it won't totally prohibit ranchers from controlling prairie dogs, because so many states list prairie dogs as an agricultural pest," Miller says. "I think it will be a unique listing, and I think the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will try to work with everyone."

Patricia Worthing, an endangered-species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says it's too soon to know how lenient such a listing would be. "But we have the flexibility to help resolve any conflicts--whether real or perceived--that go along with a listing. We try to resolve issues to the benefit of the species and the humans."

Though none of the humans seem to realize it, they're all fighting for the same damn thing. For the people who love them, prairie dogs are a reminder of the days before nearly every tract of grassland turned to cement. Here and there, on the few naked pieces of land that remain, a prairie dog head pops out of its hole as if on the lookout for the dangerous predator--development--that threatens the wide-open spaces that drew most of the humans and their development here in the first place. For the people who hate prairie dogs, the fight also symbolizes a threat to their way of life. They've battled nature in order to live on those wide-open plains ever since their families settled them, and the encroaching environmentalists are just too much to stomach.

If the wildlife service decides not to protect the black-tailed prairie dog, Miller says she will call a meeting with the Baca County commissioners in the hopes that they'll change their minds and allow the animals to be transferred there. "We don't want to bulldoze in there and force this down their throats," she says. "We want their cooperation."

But if they don't cooperate, she says, the next logical step would be to try to get Senate Bill 111 overturned. "We purchased that land with the intention of creating a short-grass preserve, to which prairie dogs are essential. We have an obligation to our donors to do what we said we'd do with the property," Miller says. "We will push for preserves in every county."

But down in Baca County, Red Heath says, "If push comes to shove, things will get a little messy. I'll just leave it at that.


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