Proposed prairie dog relocation bid likely to play out in public eye
In eastern Weld County near Briggsdale, Colo., an approximately 1,025-acre property was purchased and sold a few times through the years, as many are. In 2015, Larry Croissant purchased the portion of the property that was suitable for grazing. A 321-acre parcel of dryland farm ground was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. In 2019, 640-acres were granted into a conservation easement with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust by WCR89 Group, LLC, which owned the property.
The conservation deed was granted for the purpose of “forever conserving the open space character, agricultural productivity, and wildlife habitat.” According to the conservation easement, the property is part of a growing block of productive agricultural lands in Weld County, part of 20,000 acres in total, preserved through conservation easement donations. The land is in proximity to several thousand acres of land owned by the State of Colorado, the State Land Board, including over 1,200 acres nominated to the State Land Board’s Stewardship Trust by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Natural Areas Program. It is also close to the Crow Valley Recreation Area, the Pawnee Buttes Scenic Byway, the Pawnee Buttes, and the Pawnee National Grassland, administered by the Arapahoe/Roosevelt National Forest. A 2008 baseline inventory was completed to document the condition of the property at that time to assure that any future changes in the use of the property are consistent with the terms of the conservation easement.
On the other end of Weld County at the intersection of County Road 1 and Ken Pratt Blvd. in Longmont, Colo., a multi-million-dollar development project has been in the works for nearly a decade. The hold up, in part, is a colony of prairie dogs.
The Croissant and Miller families received a letter in May of 2021 from Sheree Seabury with Advocates for the Preservation of Prairie Wildlife notifying them of a pending application with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to relocate 1,500 black-tailed prairie dogs to a 316-acre plot, described above, Seabury had under contract to purchase. The acreage, which was enrolled in the CRP program at the time, borders the family’s Croissant Red Angus operation. Seabury said she plans to “plant vegetation along the side that borders your property to keep the prairie dogs from migrating off this 316 acre (sic) site onto your land.” Seabury said she is, in the event prairie dogs from the relocation site cross the property line, “committed to trapping them and moving them off your land and back to our site.”
The families sent a letter to the CPW in August of 2021 to request that CPW deny Seabury’s application. Though Seabury’s letter shared her intentions to release 1,500 prairie dogs onto the 316-acre site, it was not accompanied by a management plan. Seabury’s original application was denied, but once she closed on the property on Aug. 3, 2021, she reapplied, and that application is pending.
CPW also received numerous letters of opposition from surrounding land owners and the group that sold the property to Seabury, who were unaware of her plans at the time they accepted her contract to purchase. One neighbor, who said she has lived on the prairie for 82 years, said she has personally seen the silt fence fail. She said the prairie dogs dig under it, eat it, and the wind whips and tears it, leaving a mess an no containment of the rodents.
A peer review of Seabury’s management plan conducted by Rob Roy Ramey II, Ph.D., Wildlife Science International, Inc., found the management plan was without a budget, funding source, timeline, or budget justification. Ramey also pointed out the plan appears to be written by Advocates for the Preservation of Prairie Wildlife, also the group Seabury identifies herself as a part of in many of her letters. No nonprofit group by that name is registered so it’s unclear whether Seabury is responsible for the plan, if APPW is, or an unknown third party.
“The lack of a detailed budget, timeline, and designated funding source ought to be a serious concern to nearby landowners and CPW because land preparations alone for a project of this scale on former agricultural land could easily exceed resources available and ultimately result in failure,” Ramey wrote. “Yet, the author(s) of the APPW plan do not provide any cost estimates for labor and materials required to fence the property, install burrows, plant vegetation barriers and native vegetation, nor the long-term costs of barrier maintenance, nor prairie dog recapture on nearby private land, nor ongoing prairie dog population monitoring, plague testing and flea/plague mitigation with insecticide.”
Ramey also wrote that the APPW plan contains no citations of published scientific papers or gray literature on successful prairie dog and plague management, despite an abundance of publicly available papers and reports on this subject.
“Proposed actions as well as optimistic projections about prairie dog carrying capacity, prairie dog dispersal onto nearby farmland, effectiveness of vegetation border and visual barrier fencing, appear to be wholly based upon hearsay and opinion,” he said. “This raises questions about the proponent’s due diligence before seeking CPW approval of the project.”
According to a study released by CPW, prairie dogs occupy 500,000 acres in eastern Colorado and are classified as abundant, making the need for additional acres of habitat unnecessary. In their letter to CPW, the Croissants said, “the population statistics that CPW has spent countless hours and resources to gather are based on sound science; therefore, the relocation of prairie dogs is not warranted in this case.”
Some of the other concerns voiced to CPW include the high likelihood of migration of the prairie dogs due to lack of resources, food, and water; years in the CRP program have resulted in vegetation on the highly erodible ground but with constant grazing from prairie dogs, wind erosion will occur; and barriers are historically ineffective for prairie dogs.
Seabury’s promise to trap and move prairie dogs off neighboring property, the family said in their letter, presents a liability issue and a trespassing issue. Additionally, they maintain that surrounding landowners are not interested in Y Pestis or flea exposure, nor will there be any economic or social benefit to the community.
“In fact, the neighbors will inevitably be responsible for the loss of grazing on the adjacent property, increased costs to control the migration on to their land, and CPW will have an increase in costs due to the district wildlife officers having to deal with issues related to this relocation,” the letter said.
In March, Seabury wrote again to the Croissants and Millers after meeting in person the previous summer and after the application was resubmitted. In it, she cited the dependence of other species on prairie dogs, the detrimental effect “the explosion of development in Colorado” that threatens the prairie dogs’ existence, their burrows being used by other animals, and that they “improve soil and vegetation quality and biodiversity by grazing and digging.”
Ranchers, she wrote, “just need to be convinced that there is an eco-system that has to be maintained even if you are ranching and farming and if we work together to preserve the wildlife and habitat in the long run it’s better for humans and the planet.”
Seabury’s plan outlined in this letter is to trap 900 to 1,500 prairie dogs from the 35-acre site in Longmont and release them on a 60-acre portion of the Briggsdale site, and later allowing them to expand onto another 40 to 50 acres as needed. Silt fencing, which is the black plastic fencing often used around construction sites, will be installed on the fence line bordering Larry and Jean Croissant’s property, and a 50-foot vegetation border of sunflowers, Rocky Mountain Bee Plant, and penstemons will be planted on the north, east, and west borders. Additionally, there will be a 1,500-foot border of 18-inch-tall grasses.
The Croissant and Miller families, again, requested that CPW deny the relocation request. In an April 8, 2022, letter to CPW, the families again expressed their concern with containment and the failures the U.S. Forest Service has experienced with containment efforts utilizing silt fence.
“The vegetative barriers that the management plan speaks of requires extensive ground preparation and planting of diverse species within a landscape, along with exceptionally favorable rainfall. But to make a hedge row-type system in the dry-land system is farfetched,” they wrote.
Jason Surface, the Area Wildlife Manager for CPW’s Area 4 based in Fort Collins said prairie dog relocations are more common in Boulder and Denver, especially in an area slated for development. Surface said by statute, a relocation across county lines would require the approval of the county commissioners. Though the Longmont trap site is mere feet from the Boulder County border, it is in Weld County.
Surface encouraged Seabury to reach out to the landowners and county commissioners upon the second filing of the relocation request. The decision whether or not to approve the application will be made at the regional level.
“The trap site is a well-known colony and there’s been development planned on it for a decade and people have been scrambling to try to move these prairie dogs,” he said. “Because the developer hasn’t owned the land until now, they never moved on it or granted permission. It’s really in the public eye for those folks and because of that, it has made its way to the highest echelon of government.”
FIRST GENTLEMEN’S INVOLVEMENT
Surface said in addition to the Croissants and the Weld County commissioners, there have been a number of letters of opposition submitted. He said First Gentleman Marlon Reis is familiar with the colony and aware of the application.
“At the end of the day, the people making the decisions are not the ones on the ground working with landowners and trying to build valuable and meaningful relationships with them,” he said. “The decision will be political.”
If the application is approved and Seabury relocates the prairie dogs, Surface said CPW lacks enforcement authority for her to abide by the management plan approved by the agency.
On April 19, 2021, Reis posted his thoughts to Facebook about voluntary prairie dog relocation to private property.
“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.”
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 Blvd) to this property NE of Briggsdale, CO.” She also added that, if “for some horrible reason” CPW denies the application, online donation funds will be returned.
According to her online biography, she serves on the board of directors of Southern Plains Land Trust 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…”
A call to Seabury was not returned.
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