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

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.

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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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast