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    Columbine prairie dogs may face grim future

    By Steven Graham
    Sentinel and Transcript Newspapers

        A prairie dog colony at Columbine High School may have grazed on its last lush soccer field. Jeffco R-1 School District officials may poison the animals this week before a soccer camp begins Aug. 5.

    Coaches say the animals are a hazard to Columbine athletes, who could break their legs falling in prairie dog burrows. Therefore, the school has talked about getting rid of the colony for several months.

    A group of students from across the county bought the animals some time in the spring. Judith Miller Smith's environmental science class from Jeffco Open School worked to fill burrow holes on athletic fields in May.

    Miller Smith and the students then worked during the summer, calling several agencies to find a new home for the dogs. However, everybody turned Miller Smith down, and now district officials say time has run out.

    The rodents first began munching on the sports fields last spring when they were poisoned and driven out of Clement Park.

    The animals ran across South Pierce Street to Columbine. They mainly burrow and graze on vacant land near the school. However, drought conditions have made the irrigated sports fields very attractive to the animals.

    School officials could send the dogs scurrying back across the street if they poison the colony. Kathy Boucher of relocation service Prairie Dog Specialists Inc. said poisoning the colony could endanger students.

    "I don't think any poison should be used anywhere near where people are going to be," she said. "That stuff's miserable."

    She said the poison burned her skin when she stuck her arm in a prairie dog hole more than eight weeks after a poisoning.

    Boucher offered several alternatives to poisoning.

    She said the school could keep out the prairie dogs by building a simple fence about 2 feet above and below the field surface. However, district officials said they cannot put in a fence.

    "It is cost-prohibitive to put in some kind of barrier because you have to bury it deep enough so the prairie dogs don't burrow under it," said R-1 spokesman Rick Kaufman.

    Boucher said she would voluntarily move the animals if Miller Smith can find them a new home.

    Her partner, Becky Deck, said they also have plenty of helpers.

    "You've got a school full of students who would be willing to help do that in a heartbeat," Deck said.

    However, Miller Smith said she has run out of options. The animals were turned down by several cities and recreation districts and Jefferson County Open Space.

    Open Space spokeswoman Thea Rock said several county parks are full of prairie dogs who might attack newcomers if they are introduced.

    "The colonies we currently have on Open Space properties are healthy and well-managed," Rock said.

    Bill Jewell, Lakewood's manager of regional parks and golf, said the city could set a dangerous precedent by taking prairie dogs from another area.

    "If we were to take any prairie dogs from outside agencies, what would happen when developers want to move more prairie dogs?" Jewell said. "We wouldn't be able to say no."

    Published Aug. 1, 2002
    E-mail Steven Graham

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