Oh give me a home, where the prairie dogs can roam


Life out west isn't easy for the prairie dog.

Most people consider them nothing but cute pests - and some would debate the "cute" part. But last November, in a crusade that perhaps could only take place in Boulder, Colo., environmentalists tried to set up a version of a homeless shelter for prairie dogs evicted by development around Denver. Almost every week, a prairie dog colony gets bulldozed to make way for a home or business.

But in Baca County, the proposed haven for the displaced rodents, ranchers saw the effort as akin to a save-the-mosquito campaign.

The fracas over the furry creatures got so bad, the state legislature waded in. Last week, Colorado's Senate passed a measure allowing local lawmakers to ban people from carting the little animals over county lines.

The rodent ruckus is just the latest clash between ranchers and Colorado's environmentalists. In a twist, this time it's environmentalists arguing about private-property rights, and rural landowners talking about the environment.

"Prairie dogs can be more destructive to the environment than a hazardous waste incinerator," says state Sen. Mark Hillman, sponsor of the bill, noting that besides digging burrows in grazing land, they chew forage down to the quick. "It's only proper that elected officials have a voice in something that can be a fairly critical issue," he says.

The "prairie dogs, go home!" battle cry is nothing new. For the past century, they've been shot or poisoned by cattlemen as casually as most folks swat flies. Today, they are believed to inhabit only 1 percent of their historic range.

Despite much progressive talk in recent years about relocating prairie dogs instead of exterminating them, seldom is there a place available to put the little critters.

"We realized there was a dwindling supply of land here for prairie dogs," says Lauren McCain, president of the newly formed Southern Plains Land Trust, which was set up to house some of Denver's prairie dogs. "So we decided to go to the eastern plains to purchase some areas where prairie ecosystems could be established in perpetuity."

But while the plan was great news for prairie dogs and their faithful following, there were no cries of joy to be heard in agricultural Baca County.

"We have an abundance of prairie dogs, all we need," says Baca County Commissioner Charlie Wait. "We don't want to be a dumping site for everyone's disposal."

"It's not a dumping ground," counters Ms. McCain. "We want to restore the land to native natural prairie habitat." After all, she says, wildlife biologists consider prairie dogs a "keystone species." These critters support more than 150 species of vertebrates - including golden and bald eagles, owls, coyotes, and black-footed ferrets.

Rural lawmakers' eyes glaze over at such talk. They also suspect it could only come from denizens of environmentally friendly Boulder: a place more commonly referred to as "The People's Republic of Boulder" by those outside its bounds.

The bill is poised for a hearing in the state House, and metropolitan prairie dogs' chances of escaping to country life appear to be narrowing. And this time it's environmentalists arguing about property rights."The same legislature that is so adamant about private-property rights is saying that we need government approval. It's totally hypocritical. They should all be ashamed," says Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife coordinator for Rocky Mountain Animal Defense in Boulder and a board member of the land trust. "They must think that only ranchers have private-property rights."

Not so, says Republican Senator Hillman, a farmer from Burlington, Colo. "There's a consensus that what you do on your property is your business. But the introduction of prairie dogs could have plenty of effect on adjoining property owners, and that's the conflict here."

This, apparently, is where the New West meets the True West.

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