August 28, 2005

Prairie dog paratroopers

Yesterday, KRCC's "Western Skies" news program broadcast a segment whose historical resonance they failed to recognize--specifically, this segment. (Scroll down to "The rumor mill has been working overtime in Lincoln County.")

The broadcast transcript continues:

It turns out the discussion at the [county commissioners'] meeting was more of an informal inquiry by Commissioner Gary Beedy, who says he brought it up after his father saw something unusual one evening while checking his cattle.

Prairie DogGARY BEEDY: All of a sudden he saw a helicopter come down real quick and land in a pasture, a neighbor's pasture, and it was there for just a little bit and took off again. After talking around he found some other people who had also seen helicopters come in and land in pastures out in the middle of nowhere, and some have seen prairie dogs that are kind of off running around looking lost and aren't in a colony like they normally are.

Lincoln County! Mysterious helicopters and vans! Animal weirdness! Yikes, it's the 1970s again!

Lincoln County, on the High Plains in eastern Colorado, was the epicenter for many of the mysterious and never-solved cattle-mutilation reports of the mid-to-late 1970s. Stumbling out of college into reality's light in those years and returning to Colorado Springs, I was fascinated by it all. I wanted to be a reporter and investigate, but I was not hired (by the now-vanished Colorado Springs Sun) until 1979.

A couple of years later I did write a feature on the mutilations, but it was more in the nature of "What ever happened to?"

At the time, some people blamed warped Vietnam-vet helicopter pilots from Fort Carson for the mutilations (if they indeed were human-caused mutilations, which is debatable).

In general, you make a mistake to underestimate the paranoia of many rural residents. And a lot of old-time ranchers hate prairie dogs because they eat grass that might go into a cow. Baca County, in southeast Colorado, actually passed a law against importing prairie dogs.

Their target: animal-protectionists who were looking to save prairie dogs displaced by subdivisions on the prairie around metro Denver and to relocate them.

Put that together with the stereotype of black-clad Animal Liberation Front types torching research labs, and you have animal-rights commandos dropping off prairie dogs from helicopters at Gary Beedy's father's ranch.

And I would not rule it out. My sister once wanted me to help her do something similar--clandestinely reintroduce prairie dogs to South Park, a large intermountain valley in central Colorado, where they had mostly all been poisoned to death in the 1950s and '60s at the request of cattle and sheep ranchers. And although that plan never came to fruition, she took on other equally quixotic challenges.

I probably shouldn't mention this, but earlier in the summer our dogs killed a prairie dog in our little meadow. At the time, M. and I were mystified (and sad). We live in the wooded foothills, so what was a prairie dog doing here? The nearest colony is at least three miles away as the crow flies. Now I'm wondering...

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