Whisk them away 

Advocates hope that with a $10,000 incentive on the table, someone will save prairie dogs from a widening Proby Parkway

To Dave Crawford, an animation showing construction plans for Milton E. Proby Parkway plays like a horror movie.

The road, depicted as twin strips of gray, starts out with four lanes as it glides westward from the Colorado Springs Airport. In less than a mile, it starts expanding to a gluttonous nine lanes, turning a future intersection with Hancock Express into a sea of asphalt.

Crawford, dangling binoculars after counting 22 prairie dogs in a grassy area that will be buried under that intersection, shudders visibly as he contemplates what the construction, slated to begin next year, means for the animals. Though prairie dogs are in contention for federal listing as a threatened or endangered species, Crawford worries this group could soon die under heavy equipment.

"I think there's something grotesque about burying alive one of nature's best diggers," says Crawford, a co-founder and former executive director of the Boulder-based environmental group Rocky Mountain Animal Defense.

All hope is not lost for the critters — a private foundation has put up $10,000 for anyone able and willing to provide them with a home. But Crawford's worry, fueled by the video posted at probyparkway.com, is that even that money might not be incentive enough.

"It appears we are at a dead end," he says.

'Keystone' species

Your first reaction to all this might have been, $10,000 for some prairie dogs? WTF?

Well, the funds come from the Dallas-based Summerlee Foundation, which has the dual mission of protecting animals and preserving Texas history. Melanie Lambert, program director for the foundation's animal-related efforts, explains the organization's interests range from mountain lions to dolphins.

"In our opinion," she says, "all animals are important."

The foundation's animal protection branch happens to be based in Colorado Springs. On trips to and from the airport, Lambert, like many residents, has seen the prairie dogs scurrying between their holes next to Drennan Road.

Black-tailed prairie dogs, the kind found here, once lived on the Great Plains from Mexico to Canada. But they've lost between 95 and 99 percent of their habitat, according to Lauren McCain, prairie protection director for Western environmental group WildEarth Guardians. That's why they made it onto the federal Endangered Species Act waiting list as a candidate species in 2000.

They were booted from the list in 2004, but WildEarth Guardians petitioned for federal protection again in 2007, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to announce in December whether they should be protected as a threatened or endangered species, or again considered a candidate species, in need of protection but behind other species with greater needs.

McCain and other fans see the sociable rodents as a "keystone" species in the prairie ecosystem, serving as dinner for hawks, owls, foxes and other animals while also aerating the soil and improving plant health.

Still, some landowners and developers dislike their burrows and eating habits. They are officially classified as "destructive rodent pests," meaning there are few restrictions on how or when they can be killed — they can be poisoned, shot or bulldozed on a whim. Federal protection, if only as a threatened species, would change that.

Hole hearted

Even if the prairie dog doesn't get listed, $10,000 remains available to anyone who can take the 30 or so currently at risk.

If your reaction to that was, How can I sign up? ... well, it's not easy.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has pages of relocation regulations. Before approving a site, officials want to see a good amount of shortgrass prairie, land that's not too sandy (otherwise burrows might cave in), and possibly even evidence of other prairie dogs living nearby.

Jessica Patterson, a local wildlife advocate who's working with Crawford, says she actually knows a few ranchers whose land fits that description and who would gladly take the prairie dogs. The problem: "They don't want the publicity."

The DOW requires that neighbors be consulted, and these neighbors believe the animals eat too much grass, and that cattle will suffer broken legs from falling into their burrows. (Myths, Patterson insists.)

While Patterson says the group still has a few leads, she and Crawford would both love to see the city — which owns the prairie dogs' current home — step up somehow. On Tuesday, Patterson appeared before City Council to ask for help. After hearing Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte say Utilities has no suitable land, Councilor Jerry Heimlicher got Forte to agree to check out a southeast-side property where Heimlicher has photographed prairie dogs himself.

But city leaders are currently preoccupied with budget cuts and other weighty matters; somewhat ominously, Mayor Lionel Rivera ended the dialogue with Patterson by saying the city would do what it could with the resources it has.

For his part, Crawford would urge city leaders to take the long view, since federal wildlife officials are watching to see if local governments can take care of prairie dogs without their intervention.

"If they want to avert a listing," Crawford says, "this is one way they can do it."



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