GABELL | Prairie dogs and progressive politics | Opinion



Rachel Gabel


I’m considering writing a novel. In it, an area will experience explosive growth that will threaten to displace prairie dogs. Now, the prairie dogs cause damage to the land in a couple of ways and they carry diseases and fleas, but it doesn’t matter in this novel. Prairie dogs are also listed by state wildlife professionals as “destructive rodent pests” and classify them as a “nuisance” species. This also doesn’t matter.

In this novel, the heroine will spot the furry, chirping critters frolicking and will set out to rescue them from peril due to impending development. The antagonists are ranchers on the eastern side of the county. The heroine will find 300 acres of land for sale next to their ranch that will be a perfect site to relocate 1,500 prairie dogs. Other animal rights activists will pitch in to put down earnest money on the property and the heroine can get to work convincing the Parks and Wildlife staff that her application to relocate the prairie dogs should be approved. Meanwhile, the ranchers will write letters to the Parks and Wildlife staff citing boring science and fighting against her application. In a plot twist, the First Gentleman, an animal activist himself, will begin seeking private property to relocate other prairie dogs. He will take to social media and claim that ranchers are egotistical and whiny.

The ranchers will continue to argue their points, making wild claims that prairie dogs will cross property lines and entering private property to retrieve them is trespassing. They will say that the Parks and Wildlife staff found there is a thriving population of prairie dogs and relocation efforts aren’t necessary. They will even go so far as to say that vegetation meant to keep prairie dogs on the property won’t grow without management and moisture.

Luckily, the heroine is a board member of a group that purchases farms and ranches for wildlife habitat. Through a series of quirky connections, she works with a member of the Parks and Wildlife commission. I won’t give away the ending, but the cliffhanger will reveal whether activists can work together to defeat the ranchers.

It’s been said that truth is stranger than fiction. In Weld County, a ranch family is trying to oppose an application by Sheree Seabury to relocate 1,500 prairie dogs to a 316-acre property that borders their ranch. The property has recently been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) which takes farm ground that is particularly vulnerable to soil erosion and considered untillable, out of farming production. The applicant plans to use vegetation borders and silt fence to keep the prairie dogs on the correct property, though the US Forest Service has used silt fence to contain prairie dogs with little success.

The vegetation border sounds like a good idea at first blush, but the Briggsdale area would have to receive exceptional amounts of rain to support the vegetation border. The wind would also have to stop blowing. The applicant also volunteered to trap any prairie dogs that wander onto neighboring properties apparently with no regard for trespassing on private property or the significant liability burden placed on the ranch owners.

There is no benefit — socially or financially — to the nearby small community and, if anything, it will cost ranchers precious grazing resources and precious time. Perhaps the most frightening aspect is once the relocation is approved, the CPW has no ability or power to hold Seabury to her management plan. It’s yet to be seen if the neighboring landowners will have a civil case on their hands when prairie dogs make their way across the property lines and destroy pasture.

According to Seabury’s online fundraising platform, which raised just over $6,000 of a $170,000 goal, a coalition of wildlife advocates put “money down on 316 acres in Weld County with the intention of relocating this long lived and very large prairie dog colony from Longmont (County Road 1 and Ken Pratt Boulevard) to this property northeast of Briggsdale.” She also added that, if “for some horrible reason” CPW denies the application, online donation funds will be returned. After the initial application was denied because Seabury hadn’t purchased the property, she has since purchased it and reapplied.

According to her online biography, she serves on the Board of Directors of Southern Plains Land Trust (SPLT) and works “on fundraising, growing our support network and educating people on the value of preserving prairie wildlife and animals. Our charter at SPLT is to buy land to keep as a prairie wildlife reserve. … I purchased 316 acres which I have setup as a wildlife refuge. My passion is working to save the endangered black-tailed prairie dog due to explosive development happening in Colorado…”

Jay Tuchton, who is the preserve manager of the SPLT, is a member of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission and a member of the Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) board. A former lawyer, he has served as general counsel for WildEarth Guardians and was the senior staff attorney for Defenders for Wildlife, both organizations that work extensively to “protect prairie dog empires.”

GOCO was created by a constitutional amendment to invest a portion of Colorado Lottery revenues in parks, trails, wildlife habitats, river corridors, playgrounds and open spaces in all 64 counties. GOCO also manages competitive grants for use by local governments and land trusts.

To his credit, though, Tuchton did say at a CPW Commission meeting that, “the worst-run ranch is better than the best-run condominium complex. Ranchers play a vital role in preserving open space and wildlife habitat, especially in the eastern part of the state where it’s all private land. If you don’t have the ranching community invested in conservation, you haven’t any place to conserve habitat.”

About the same time as the ranchers’ second letter to Colorado Parks and Wildlife opposing the application, First Gentleman Marlon Reis sought private landowner volunteers to allow their land to be used for relocated prairie dogs. I’m uncertain what the exact comments were that precipitated his since-deleted April 19, 2021 comment on social media but the reality is an anti-agriculture stance from this un-elected government official. The post read:

“Two things shock me about the rural Coloradans who have bothered to comment on volunteer requests for private land-owners interested in hosting displaced Prairie Dogs: 1) for the amount of government money filling your coffers at both the State and Federal levels, you’ d best learn not to bite the hand that feeds you; 2) you are egotistical beyond belief, thinking your vote matters more than the rest of ‘urban’ Colorado, and you whine incessantly about how it’s all unfair. I ought to be shocked by your immaturity, but I’ve witnessed first-hand the way you love to play the victim card, no doubt because it’s always worked for you. Well, it’s not going to work anymore. Colorado is more than ranchers, and it’s time to adapt rather than complain.”

I’m particularly wary of attorneys for huge animal rights groups, but Tuchton makes a good point. Ranchers have been conserving habitat for generations and it’s not a less-than conservation because it’s private property or because it also raises livestock. It’s conservation because ranchers have proven it to be sustainable for generations. Due to the location of the trap site, this story will play out in the public eye. Due to the activist-friendly environment at Gov. Jared Polis’ office, this will be decided politically, pitting urban against rural and emotions against common sense and science, once again.

Rachel Gabel writes about agriculture and rural issues. She is assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine, the region’s preeminent agriculture publication. Gabel is a daughter of the state’s oil and gas industry and a member of one of the state’s 12,000 cattle-raising families, and she has authored children’s books used in hundreds of classrooms to teach students about agriculture.

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