Prairie dogs in the way of Flatirons Academy expansion

Neighbor worries what athletic fields will doom wildlife

Luke Zarzecki
lzarzecki@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 1/24/22

Every day, Leland Renoff walks his dog past the open space on the corner of Park Center Drive and North Tejon St. in Westminster. The space is currently home to a colony of prairie dogs.  When the …

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Prairie dogs in the way of Flatirons Academy expansion

Neighbor worries what athletic fields will doom wildlife

Posted

Every day, Leland Renoff walks his dog past the open space on the corner of Park Center Drive and North Tejon St. in Westminster. The space is currently home to a colony of prairie dogs. 

When the two walk past, the prairie dogs hide away, as Renoff said they see his dog as a predator. 

“The funny thing is, (humans are) probably their biggest predator, their biggest enemy,” he said. 

Flatirons Academy, a private k-12 school, owns the space and it totals 11.68 acres. The school plans to develop the area into a baseball field, football field, two parking lots and additional buildings for ancillary uses. Westminsters’ planning commission unanimously approved the project, and the same happened with City Council on Jan. 10.

Renoff is a 2018 transplant from New Jersey to Westminster who cites the open space and beautiful landscapes of Colorado as reasons for the move. 

“It’s probably the most beautiful landscape in the country,” he said, talking about the state of Colorado.

Leland learned about the Academy’s plans and immediately thought about the prairie dogs, hawks, magpies, bald eagles and other animals that use the site. It saddens him to see how quickly developers turn prairies into parking lots.

“We kill these (prairie dogs) en masse just to lay some foundation,” he said. 

He brought his concerns to the Jan. 10 city council meeting.

Important Project 

“Our goal is to continue to improve our program and the experience we provide for our students,” said Mitch Doughty, the Director of Operations for the school during the city council meeting.

Their athletic activities include football, basketball, baseball, soccer and volleyball and have competed in four state championships in the past three years and won two, Doughty said. 

Currently, the school rents fields offsite where the students can practice. This project would eliminate the need for transporting students after school.

A section of the open space Flatirons Academy plans to develop.
A section of the open space Flatirons Academy plans to develop.

“Say goodbye to the days of playing opponents on a rented field or wondering where practice takes place. Adding twelve acres to our campus expands our community making way for two true home fields for games and practice. We’ll have plenty of space for kindergarten through twelfth-grade families to cheer on the Bison from the stands, play with friends on the playground, or grab a snack from the concession stand,” says a flier from Flatirons Academy.  

“This addition allows for the creation of a continuous safe space for learning and outdoor recreation for the students,” said Brandi Rice, a senior associate with Norris Design. 

Westminster City Councilor Sarah Nurmela voiced her approval for the project. 

“I’m really excited that there’s investment and the school is going to be expanded,” she said. 

Important Animals

According to the organization Defenders of Wildlife, prairie dogs benefit almost 150 species because their colonies create islands of habitat. They are considered a keystone species, which helps keep an ecosystem together.  

As well, the dogs are a food source for many animals, including burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, foxes and the endangered black-footed ferrets, says the website. 

“The developer gave a presentation on all their plans for this lot and nowhere in there did they mention what to do with all prairie dogs that already exist here,” he said. “Which to me is kind of a sign that they weren’t considering (them) in the first place.”

After Renoff voiced his concern through public comment, Westminster Mayor Nancy McNally asked what would happen to the prairie dogs, to which Doughty said he would follow city policy after the proposal was approved. 

Westminster City Councilor Obi Ezeadi pressed harder on the applicant and asked whether they will euthanize the animals if they cannot be relocated by the city. 

“Can’t you do more? Can you please do more?” he asked. 

“I haven’t looked into it beyond what we already said, I don’t want to see the prairie dogs die either, I was planning on there being a relocation plan,” Doughty said. “I have to look into it more, I don’t want to commit to something I don’t know more about.”

Renoff hopes the developer puts time and thought into how they will handle the prairie dogs. 

“But if that company (Norris design) is doing a lot more development in the area, and this plan to relocate the wildlife isn’t part of their package already, and you know, they’re not doing that for other spots, right,” he said.

A prairie dog stands guard in its hole.
A prairie dog stands guard in its hole.

State Laws

According to Jason Clay, a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the landowner decides what to do with the prairie dogs, but would need a permit from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) if they want to relocate them. 

CPW would then determine if the proposed site would be an appropriate habitat.

“If they meet the set of guidelines, then they would adapt easily. If we did not think they could adapt to the proposed location, we would not approve the application,” Clay said.

Historic Actions 

According to Andy Le, a spokesperson for the City of Westminster, the city does not have wildlife protection ordinances in place for private land. The laws are up to the state. 

“If any action is needed, it would be the responsibility of the developer,” Le said. “In Colorado, wildlife is under the jurisdiction of the state. According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, prairie dogs are classified as a “destructive rodent pest,” and this classification offers them little protection.”

Though, Westminster has humanly relocated prairie dogs in the past. Le points to the Big Dry Creek Interceptor project at City Park, where the city moved about 75 prairie dogs to public land in Jefferson county last summer. 

Le said that the dogs must be relocated within their origin county, and that’s not always an option. 

“Given the space limitations of the Front Range, it is not always possible to relocate prairie dogs. In instances where relocation is not an option, prairie dogs are donated to the Birds of Prey Foundation to aid in the rehabilitation of raptors,” he said. 

Though Renoff understands the importance of the project and upgrading the school, he thinks Colorado’s quick development is the wrong move. 

“I guess we’ve developed this to the point where nobody can really see what this land used to be,” he said. 

A prairie dog and a magpie relax in the open space.
A prairie dog and a magpie relax in the open space.

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