Prairie dog advocates celebrate Boulder County vandalism; farmers fear reprisal

Courtesy of Boulder County

Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020

It was not the first time destruction of private property grabbed headlines this year. An intentional act, meant to protest actions of the government which lead to death. The assailants are unknown but likely feel unheard, sympathizers say, frustrated that their decades of advocacy and activism have been ineffective or ignored.

But this story was not about the extrajudicial killings of men and women of color. It was not about police violence. It was not about Black lives, or even human lives. This story, set in Boulder, was about prairie dogs. The damage was not to homes and businesses but to hoses and traps intended to kill the keystone species as part of routine management of Boulder County open space cropland.

An investigation is ongoing, but the vandalism may be connected to Boulder’s recent consideration of a plan to begin lethal control on 967 acres north of the city, land reserved for irrigated agriculture but increasingly occupied by prairie dogs. Council will decide the matter Tuesday.

The act was celebrated in a Facebook post made by Prairie Protection Colorado, an advocacy organization, and greeted with enthusiasm by commenters, many of whom spoke at the 2.5-hour Boulder city council public hearing on August 11. “Heroes,” wrote AJ Costa; “Sounds like ‘the vandals’ engaged in a little bit of ‘good trouble’ to me,” added Kelly Leviker, referencing the late John Lewis, a noted civil rights activist.

The post was “not so much a celebration of vandalism,” said Deanna Meyer, founder and executive director of Prairie Protection Colorado. “It’s not that I encourage vandalism, but I encourage different tactics to be explored,” calling this action an “interesting” one and “something to explore — if it works.”

“What we are celebrating is that those prairie dogs are hopefully still alive and that they weren’t gassed to death in those burrows,” Meyer said.

It didn’t save any animals,” said Rob Alexander, agricultural resources supervisor with Boulder County Parks and Open Space. The county borrowed equipment and “we were right back at it, within days.”

“So it really didn’t slow things down. It’s going to cost the taxpayers some money.” The damage was estimated at $100,000.

The detective in charge of the case is aware of the post, according to department spokesperson Carrie Haverfield. She declined to say whether or not suspects had been identified. Anyone with information related to the crime is encouraged to email ddillard@bouldercounty.org.

Meyer said she didn’t know who was involved and didn’t “want to know.” But she imagines “they probably feel pretty powerless” that official channels and actions were not achieving the desired results.

“I’m not saying go out and commit crimes,” she said. But “we get to a point where people are going to get tired and they are tired of trying to do everything the right way. … What do people expect when we beg and grovel and plead and go to the horrible meetings for hours and hours and speak it on deaf ears? … Do we continue to beg and grovel and plead? I wish with every fiber in my body that would be the way we could go.”

The post also linked to advice on how to avoid being caught for acts of destructive non-violence, provided by Deep Green Resistance, a radical “anti-civilization” environmental group of which Meyer is a member. The organization is a “sister” to Prairie Protection Colorado; two of its founders are on the PPC board.

Area farmers are spooked by the vandalism, according to Elizabeth Black. She and others have been advocating before council that something be done to stem the loss of productive agricultural land, but now many are too afraid to speak or send emails, which are public record. (No public testimony will be taken Tuesday.)

“It had a very chilling effect,” said Black. “They don’t want to testify or put their head up in any way. Farmers have hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment that’s just sitting out in fields. They feel extremely vulnerable.”

Many are taking precautions, installing security lights and motion cameras. The county will now move its equipment every night to “buildings under lock and key,” Alexander said. 

Boulder County has been euthanizing prairie dogs on agricultural open space land for 20 years, he said, and never experienced an act of intentional vandalism, as authorities believe this to be. The city of Boulder has a longstanding policy of relocating prairie dogs rather than killing them, but that changed last year with a 5-3 council vote started exploration of lethal control on the recommendation of the Open Space Board of Trustees. (Current members Sam Weaver and Mirabai Nagle dissented to that vote. Prior to her election to council, Nagle was on the board of Prairie Protection Colorado.)

What is still to be decided upon is the plan for implementing lethal control and possibly allowing farmers in the project area to disturb burrows. Current city ordinances prohibit damage, so plows have to be maneuvered around the holes. Under the plan, 3,000-6,000 prairie dogs would be euthanized each year, while 900-1,200 would be relocated.

The hope is to restore irrigated agriculture to the land, which was purchased for that purpose. More than 400 acres have been taken out of production due to expanding prairie dog populations. Nine properties are no longer leased by farmers, and those that remain in the project area have seen their yields and acreage shrink.

The typical Boulder County salary for farming, fishing and forestry is $29,061. Only three industries are lower-paying locally: Food service and prep; building cleaning, maintenance and groundskeeping; and personal care/services.

(Author’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the 2019 vote of council to explore lethal control, and the current burrow disturbance ordinance.)

City council meeting: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1. Watch online or on Channel 8.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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