Prairie Dogs Find Powerful Political Allies: Third-Graders

Update below: The Colorado Department of Agriculture refers to them as "destructive rodent pests." The state's wildlife conservation strategy describes them as a "species of greatest conservation need." Ranchers and developers want to nuke them. Environmentalists say they're a key component in a rapidly vanishing ecosystem.

Colorado's deeply ambivalent love-hate relationship with prairie dogs will be on display at the State Capitol this Friday, as pro-growth forces seek to advance a bill that would make it more difficult to relocate prairie-dog colonies that are in the path of new development — as opposed to the much cheaper alternative of, say, simply poisoning them. The measure hasn't attracted much press yet, but it might, since a politically savvy contingent of prairie-dog supporters is marching on the Capitol to publicly denounce the bill: eighty third-graders from the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a two-year-old charter school that stresses "connecting learning to real-world issues and needs."

According to a DDES press release, the students have been researching prairie dogs and their habitats and strongly oppose House Bill 16-1010, charmingly titled "A Bill For an Act Concerning the Authorization Process For the Release of Destructive Rodent Pests into a County."

"This bill is awful," DDES third-grader Pierce Benard declares in the release. "It will lead to the destruction of the prairie dogs habitat, and not allow them to be moved. They will die. Prairie dogs are super important to our environment. Without protecting the prairie dogs, the bald eagle will also be in danger." 

Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species for several reasons. They're a staple of the diet of coyotes, foxes, hawks, eagles and the endangered black-footed ferret; when their colonies are plowed under, raptors and other "scenic" species tend to disappear, too. Their burrows can mess up carefully landscaped vegetation but also provide nesting areas for the mountain plover and the burrowing owl. Their historic range decimated by suburban sprawl, they can now be found in increasingly fragmented patches of open space at the fringes of the metro area, hemmed in by new subdivisions. As we reported two years ago in a feature article called "The Dogs of War," even supposedly eco-friendly developments such as Stapleton have sought to exterminate colonies remaining in so-called natural areas, for aesthetic reasons or out of overblown fears about disease. 

WildEarth Guardians releases an annual Report From the Burrow, evaluating the conservation efforts by western states with imperiled prairie-dog populations. The latest report, issued this week, gives Colorado a "B" for its efforts — but that's only in contrast to the failing grades of states such as Nebraska and North Dakota, where officials are more openly hostile to saving prairie dogs. Colorado has managed to preserve some significant colonies as part of protected grasslands, including at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. But state legislators have also worked hard over the years to set up hurdles to relocation of colonies threatened by development — even if the transfer is between private landowners. Few relocations take place now because of the imposing county and state authorizations required, and House Bill 16-1010 would add to that red tape.

But are the sponsors of the bill prepared to face the wrath of Pierce Benard and his colleagues? Can they weather the withering questions from smart-alecky reporters as TV crews track the students during the long march (four blocks) from campus to the Capitol? Can they duck the students as they hold a press conference and explain that their research has taught them that prairie dogs have one of the most sophisticated languages in the animal kingdom, and what the heck are we doing gassing these intelligent, super-important rodents? 

Perhaps it's unlikely that the young protesters can alter the state's tendency to treat prairie dogs as pests. But lawmakers should remember a bit of advice attributed to W.C. Fields: Never work with animals or kids. 

Update, February 4, 11:00 a.m.: The Downtown Denver Expeditionary School has rescheduled the event for Monday, February 8. Students will march from the school to the Capitol starting at noon, with three of them prepared to speak on the bill at 1:30.