Perhaps the Littleton City Council saw its shadow. Or it simply felt weather predictions by Pennsylvania’s famous Punxsutawney Phil are sufficient.
For a group of six Ken Caryl Middle School students who stood before the council last month, the forecast was undoubtedly gloomy.
The students’ goal was not to change the famed Groundhog Day, in which groundhogs back east ceremoniously predict whether winter will last another six weeks. Rather, it was to persuade Littleton to declare Feb. 2 “Prairie Dog Day” as a symbolic measure to recognize a more local dirt-dwelling critter.
The Littleton council voted against the declaration 4-3.
“We worked so hard, and then, no,” said Gionna Shinley, one of the six seventh-graders to address the council. “I think maybe they had their mind on other things.”
Prairie Dog Day is an effort to gain recognition for an indigenous creature that is losing its home fast. It’s a project of the Prairie Dog Coalition and Forest Guardians. Prairie Dog Day got its start about five years ago when author and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams suggested that prairie dog advocates use Groundhog Day to raise awareness about the animal’s struggles.
Three cities in Colorado — Boulder, Lakewood and Golden — have since proclaimed Feb. 2 to be Prairie Dog Day. The Denver Zoo is holding a ceremony this year, and the Prairie Dog Coalition hopes the Denver City Council will make a declaration at its next meeting.
“Prairie dogs are like a canary in the coal mine,” said Lindsey Sterling Krank, environmental scientist and director of the Prairie Dog Coalition, “and what is happening to the prairie dog is happening to the other animals on the prairie.”
The Ken Caryl students were inspired to speak before the Littleton council by a presentation by former Jeffco Public Schools teacher Judith Miller Smith. The prairie dog lesson came just hours before the Dec. 18 city council meeting.
Smith was already on the agenda, but the students wanted to talk about what they learned in an effort to help persuade Littleton’s policymakers.
“So we parted company and met in the Littleton center, where they hold their city council meetings at 7 p.m.,” Smith said. “I had been really careful about not putting words in their mouths.”
When it came time for public comment, each student went to the podium and spoke briefly about various issues facing prairie dogs.
“Everybody else was around you, and everyone’s looking down at you,” said Jeff Fink, one of the students.
“It’s really intimidating,” said Andrea Hauck, one of Jeff’s classmates.
The students who spoke are all 12 and 13 years old. The Littleton City Council meeting represented their first taste of the public process.
“They did everything; they’re really awesome,” said Jacqueline Lovell, the kids’ natural science teacher. “I don’t know many kids that would get up there and do that.”
Though they were able to comment about Prairie Dog Day toward the beginning of the meeting, the Littleton council votes on motions during the meeting’s general business portion at the end of the night.
“We had to leave early because we had to get schoolwork done,” Andrea said.
Two of the students were able to stay until 9 p.m., but the vote didn’t come until sometime after 10 that night.
“They were just so excited; they were so proud of what they’d done,” Smith said.
She promised to stay until the end. But once a motion was made, the news she had to deliver to the students was not so good.
“And then they voted, and it was 4-3 against it,” Smith said. “And the mayor voted for it, but the people who voted against it ee I don’t know. As I walked out, another person — a citizen — who was there at the meeting just shook his head and said, ‘Mean people.’ ”
Littleton Mayor Doug Clark, along with council members Peggy Cole and Joseph Trujillo, voted in favor of Prairie Dog Day. Council members Debbie Brinkman, Jim Taylor, Tom Mulvey and John Ostermiller were against it.
“I thought it was a no-harm kind of thing, but I haven’t heard from anybody, and I didn’t ask anybody why they voted against it,” Cole said.
Cole made the motion to proclaim Prairie Dog Day. She suggested that, if the students had been from Littleton Public Schools, it might have helped.
“I thought it was a nice ecological thing, because as one student pointed out, prairie dogs are part of an ecological system,” Cole said. “To me, it was a nice way to raise the awareness about the complexity of an ecological system.”
Brinkman, Taylor and Ostermiller did not return calls requesting comment.
The students didn’t hear about the outcome until they arrived at school the next day. One of their first reactions was disbelief.
“It’s just one day of the whole year,” said Abby Wohlfarth, one of the seventh-graders. “It’s not going to kill someone.”
“How can a groundhog on the other side of the United States know what it’s going to be like on this side of the United States?” Andrea asked, suggesting that local prairie dogs should be predicting the local weather.
Despite the initial disappointment, the students remained positive and started to plan a strategy for next year.
“I think it gave us a head start, kind of — a voice — and I think maybe more people would try,” said Shannon Lacy, who would one day like to preserve prairie dogs on a private piece of land. “If we could get one person to vote over the other three, then we won.”
Prairie dogs still inhabit many open areas in South Jeffco. Developers aren’t required to take any particular steps when they move into those areas. Among tactics for prairie dog removal are poisoning, bulldozing or relocation.
“They’re an icon of the West, and yet we’re destroying them,” Smith said.
Krank lives in Boulder, where prairie dog preservation has been a hot topic through the past decade. The idea behind Prairie Dog Day is to get simple declarations — no money or commitment involved.
“Now we can have some of our own ownership,” Krank said. “What does Groundhog Day have to do with us, anyway? I think it’s been something positive and fun that we can look forward to every year.”
For Littleton, at least, the Prairie Dog Day concept will have to remain in semi-hibernation.
“I’m going to celebrate it anyway,” said seventh-grader Connor Graf.
Contact Matt Gunn at firstname.lastname@example.org.