Prairie dog colony being eradicated at site of planned Denver "nature" school

At public hearings, Denver Public Schools officials have expressed the hope that a new elementary school to be built in southeast Denver, on an undeveloped site formerly designated as a natural area, could offer a curriculum built around teaching kids about the environment. Prospective students got their first lesson in interspecies relationships this past weekend, as DPS began trapping and eradicating a prairie dog colony on the site -- despite a lawsuit by citizens challenging the land transfer, and much to the alarm of some families with kids bicycling in the area.

Last week, signs appeared around the eleven-acre site in Hampden Heights, advising locals that DPS would be carrying out its trapping operation until October 4; the rodents would become bird chow for injured raptors being rehabilitated at the Birds of Prey Foundation.

That doesn't sit well with Friends of Denver Parks, the grassroots group challenging the city's transfer of the site to DPS. On its website, group president Renee Lewis points out that the colony is a primary food source for many wild birds in the vicinity of Paul A. Hentzell Park: "To kill off their food source at the beginning of a predicted hard winter is unconscionable."

One report relayed over the weekend from an observer reads: "Live traps, with at least 1 prairie dog dead in 1 of estimated 10-15 traps...it's a pretty ugly sight for families out on bike rides today."

As discussed in my May feature, "The Dogs of War," prairie dogs are regarded as a keystone species of the prairie ecosystem, providing food and habitat for a wide array of animals, plants and insects. But they're also maligned as plague carriers (there hasn't been a case of plague in Denver traced to a prairie dog colony in more than thirty years) and frequently under attack by developers, ranchers and park managers.

The Hampden Heights colony has been living on borrowed time, it seems, ever since DPS began hunting for a site for a new school to help relieve overcrowding on the southeast side. Mayor Michael Hancock, keen on swapping some land for a school building downtown that his administration plans to convert into a "family justice center," declared that the undeveloped land next to Hentzell Park was "blighted" with prairie dogs and managed to persuade the city council to approve the transfer.

Critics of the deal say that the area is the last remnant of a prairie ecosystem within the city limits and a key connectivity point for wildlife in the Cherry Creek corridor -- and that the transfer is illegal, since various representations have been made to locals over the years that the land would remain undeveloped. Efforts to obtain an injunction against the transfer and to get the issue on the ballot for voters to decide have been thwarted so far, but a trial in the Friends of Denver Parks lawsuit is scheduled for next spring.

That may be too late to do the colony -- and the various species of predators that depend on it -- much good. Even if the Friends of Denver Parks manage to get the deal undone, the formerly designated natural area may not have much nature left to it. That could be a lesson plan for the new school, too -- a class on the slippery nature of the terms "blighted," "natural," and, of course, "in the best interests of the community."

More from our Environment archive circa May: "Prairie dog poisonings not the only things angering Stapleton residents."

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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