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Moving to the hogback: Debate begins among Ken-Caryl residents on relocating prairie dogs

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By Deborah Swearingen

Each time a development pops up across South Jeffco, the debate begins again: What to do with the prairie dog colonies?

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In the case of a colony located on the southwest corner of South Kipling Parkway and West Coal Mine Avenue, some Ken-Caryl residents feel they have the perfect solution. They hope to transfer the animals to the south hogback on a plot of land owned by the Ken-Caryl Ranch Metropolitan District.

Several years ago, Ken-Caryl made the decision to relocate a colony of prairie dogs from The Manor House to this piece of land on the hogback. At the same time, a group of prairie dog activists came before the board, asking to move a separate colony to the same location.

“We agreed to that,” said board president Lauri Lehan-Milano.

Now, the same activist group has returned to the Ken-Caryl board, hoping to move another colony to the hogback.

Activists such as Ellen Kessler, a 28-year Ken-Caryl resident, view this solution as a win-win. Relocation would save the prairie dogs from extermination. Plus, she said, the board wouldn’t have to provide funds or resources for relocation; they would simply have to approve the proposal. In fact, Kessler added, the board would receive a $5,000 stipend in exchange for approval.

But Lehan-Milano said the relocation doesn’t align with the district’s prairie dog policy, which was put together by the community, the Ken-Caryl Ranch Metropolitan District board and the Ken-Caryl Ranch Master Association in 2015.

“So, this prairie dog group has come back to us, asking to relocate more prairie dogs from outside our district to inside our district on our land,” she said. “That does not coincide with what our prairie dog policy is, that the community has built.”

Gina Writz, a member of the prairie dog group Lehan-Milano references, gave a presentation before the Ken-Caryl board on June 27, explaining the role that prairie dogs play in the area’s ecosystem.

Prairie dogs are a keystone species, Writz noted. By providing food or habitat, prairie dogs directly or indirectly support 172 other species. A variety of wildlife, including the black-footed ferret, swift fox and burrowing owl, depend on the prairie dog for their own survival.

There are approximately 89 available burrows in the land on the hogback, according to the presentation from Writz. Fifteen of those are needed for the completion of the Manor House relocation, and 10 would be needed to relocate the colony from Kipling and Coal Mine. This leaves more than 60 burrows — each of which can house about five to six prairie dogs — for future relocations.

Lehan-Milano worries that it still won’t be enough for Ken-Caryl’s needs.

“Our open space management is observing another colony that … is becoming large,” she said. “Some of those prairie dogs may need to be relocated, and the only place that we would have to relocate them is this parcel of land.”

Many in attendance at the June Ken-Caryl board meeting expected the board to take a vote and either approve or deny the request for relocation. When it did neither, Kessler feared the proposal may have been “swept under the rug.”

Kessler hopes to maintain the wildlife in the area she’s called home since 1979.

“I came here for the wildlife, the green and the open spaces,” she said. “Not for Starbucks. Not for car washes.

“Everyone says this, but I am an animal lover — anything from the tiniest little ant to the largest predator. And I don’t want to see it go. We need to save it for our own sanity and for our future generation’s sanity,” Kessler added.

Although Lehan-Milano wouldn’t speculate on how the board would vote, she did say that a vote on the prairie dog proposal is scheduled during the July 25 meeting.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042.