Readers who have frequented this site no doubt have heard of the massacre of prairie dogs resulting from developers who want to build the Promenade Mall in Castle Rock. Deep Green Resistance is happy to publish a deeper background story on the massacre by freelance journalist Suzanne Grover.
The Maul at Castle Rock
by Suzanne Grover
When a human has earned the trust of a wild animal, it’s an unspeakable honor. When that animal, or his fellows are threatened, a mothering instinct explodes with fury, and what feels like the wrath of God and all hell comes with it.
That fury, multiplied by tens of thousands, is what Alberta Development Partners, LLC. is facing right now.
Animals are adept at escaping danger. Sensing tsunamis they run to higher ground, sensing earthquakes they flee to open fields, and lightning-struck wildfires rarely catch up with them. What they can’t avoid is the trickery of humans armed with a WWI poison, which is mostly banned because of human fatalities, and taken by surprise with their escape routes sealed.
Some local folk in Castle Rock, Colorado, along with more than 3,500 people watching online, wept in horror when Alberta Development gave Ron Purcella’s pest control company the go-ahead to kill an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 prairie dogs on the company’s “Promenade” development site on March 9, 2015.
Raging protests, heart-wrenching pleas for mercy at town council meetings, enraged emails from citizens across the country, and even one nine-year-old Castle Rock boy’s handmade petition box did nothing to sway the council-supported developers’ decision to destroy what some are calling the oldest and most significant prairie dog colonies in Colorado’s front range. Purcella poisoned for three days, which is about how long it took for the suffering animals to finally die.
The developers had the legal right to do it — but the cheap shots were heard ’round the world.
“The exterminator was a real sicko,” said Joe Adair, the associate director of Bold Visions Conservation group which became involved after the poisoning started. “He enjoyed killing the prairie dogs, and doing anything he could to anguish the bystanders, the activists who were defending the (prairie dogs).”
Beth Ann Senderak, a Castle Rock local protesting on the site during the poisoning, dropped to her knees and wept in front of exterminators. Deanna Meyer, Castle Rock native was emotionally devastated and banned from the site with a restraining order by developers, others screamed their hearts out in protest. Folks across the nation from Washington State, to the eastern seaboard, with their hands clenched in fists of rage, emailed, posted, messaged, called and frantically signed petitions as the poisoning continued without hesitation. Stories were reported to have hit the press in Portugal and Thailand, and folks from the UK and Japan are also beginning to curse the developers.
It is generally agreed — it didn’t HAVE to happen.
And while Alberta is doing what other developers are doing all over the nation – to advocates, this is the last straw.
The developers defended their decision to eradicate the prairie dog population on their site, after the many options advocates say they were given, by releasing what they called a fact sheet. They said they “want to be good neighbors” and only when traps were destroyed by activists they “reluctantly determined the only solution was to mitigate prairie dogs on the site using Fumitoxin.” (Why developers chose the word mitigate is unclear. Mitigate means to make less severe, serious or painful, and Fumotoxin is anything BUT that. It causes animals to slowly bleed to death after convulsions and organ failure.) And a spur-of-the-moment decision to use such an egregious poison sounds questionable.
“How is killing all the natives being a good neighbor,” asked lead activist Deanna Meyer in disgust. “Converting the living into carrion and serving it on a concrete platter?”
Alberta goes on to say, “As you may know, Promenade at Castle Rock has attracted attention recently because a group of wildlife advocates, including members who do not live in Castle Rock, is campaigning against our project.”
Enraged by the “fact sheet” printed by the company (which isn’t from Castle Rock either), Julie Gallagher said, “Everyone is local when it comes to destroying an ecosystem.”
An animal activist from Austin, TX, and member of SCRPD, she said, “When they’re poisoning the Earth, there are no borders.”
Since the mass poisoning, all hell has broken loose and while Alberta circulated and mailed its fact sheet to locals, activists created two websites PromenadeCastleRockFacts.org and SaveTheCastleRockPrairieDogs.org., and two Facebook pages, Save the Castle Rock Mall Prairie Dogs and Promenade at Castle Rock Facts (which is separate from the prairie dog issues and focuses on information for locals about a referendum vote).
For weeks, venomous animosity ensued between those involved in the Castle Rock ordeal while the surviving prairie dogs lay doomed. National supporters, who couldn’t become physically involved, were frustrated, impatient and demanding of answers.
“This has been precious time wasted!” yelled Anita Rosinola from Westmont, NJ, who’s been prodigiously following the story via Save the Castle Rock Prairie Dog Facebook page, and most recently, she said, on her local TV news station in her state 1,700 miles away.
“With all this time that’s been wasted bickering about it, days and weeks have gone by, rescuers could’ve gotten the dogs out of there by now!”
The back story would take chapters to explain, but the digested version follows.
The key people in the debate are: a local group of animal advocates backed by many thousands of supporters online who include master wildlife rehabilitators, animal rescuers and folks belonging to other advocacy groups. That group is the Save the Castle Rock Mall Prairie Dogs group (to whom we will subsequently refer as SCRPD or activists), WildLands Defense (WLD) a wildlife advocacy legal team headed by Brian Ertz, Bold Visions Conservation (BVC) a new conservation group in New Mexico which began forming two years ago, Trent Botkins family owned animal re-location company Eco Solutions, Alberta Development Partners, LLC., Ron Purcella’s Animal & Pest Control Specialist Inc. who boasts “humane” extermination on his website, and most importantly, the prairie dog families both dead and alive — the very first Castle Rock residents.
Negotiations between Alberta Development, WildLands Defense and the activists had been going on since November 2014 when the activists got wind a mall was being planned over top the enormous stronghold of prairie dog families.
Alberta said their plan was to trap the dogs, “euthanize” them and feed them to a black-tailed ferret community or to raptors at a rehabilitation sanctuary. To be clear, they were not going to release them, but rather feed the dead dogs to the ferrets and raptors. (And euthanasia means to painlessly end the life of an incurably sick animal, including humans. To kill a healthy animal is correctly defined as, simply, killing.)
But on March 10, 2015, with the blessing of the Castle Rock town council, Alberta turned a vibrant chirping-with-life prairie dog stronghold, into a dead-silent wasteland.
While the poison was still wreaking havoc on surrounding wildlife including rabbits, snakes, ferrets and birds, WildLands Defense (WLD) filed litigation against Alberta to try to protect the wildlife.
Bold Visions Conservation group (BVC) was suggested to Ertz as an ally. BVC arbitrated between WLD and Alberta, and WLD agreed to drop their law suit in exchange for BVC’s promise of a 500-count prairie dog rescue including dogs from the Promenade site as well as the neighboring Castle Rock Church.
Ertz, and the activists, said that rescue did not happen as promised.
Botkin of Eco Solutions said he was paid $5,000 the day the agreement was signed, but nothing since of the $22,000 total he contracted with developers for both re-location projects. BVC associate director Joe Adair, said his group was paid $7,500 by Alberta for the arbitration, but any direct rescue efforts beyond that have not been confirmed.
Botkin said Alberta gave him two days to capture the dogs, which rang alarm bells with wildlife rehabilitators following the story due to the ludicrous time limit. One relocation expert said, “You can barely capture one family of grey squirrels in two days.” Botkin said the original estimated count of dogs on the Promenade site was only 100, so he said two days would’ve been enough time.
Botkin said in a phone interview that 130 dogs were collected and kept in a permitted residence in southern Colorado. (Those who cared for the dogs counted 73 in the troughs Trent had delivered.) After Botkin’s two-man team captured dogs for two days, using a foaming technique, they left, but requested an extension of three more days for other rescuers. Alberta granted the request, and Colorado re-locator Sandy Nervig, who is not connected with either BVC nor Ecosolutions, stepped in using Have-a-Heart traps to capture another fourteen with the voluntary help of Castle Rock volunteers including Beth Ann Senderak.
According to Botkin, Nervig was included in his relocation permit, but she cut ties with him shortly after the trapping, and acquired a new permit without his knowledge. Nervig responded and said, “Eco-solutions did not have a subcontract with me or provide me with any compensation for the work I did. Therefore I was a volunteer as were the other local volunteers who helped trap. Our only goal and motivation was to save the lives of the prairie dogs.”
Nervig has since sent an invoice, via WLD, to Botkin. Botkin said he has some funds available from Alberta, but not much. The promenade site was allocated only $9,000 of the total $22,000 contracted.The rescue attempt at Castle Rock church could not be confirmed.
During negotiations, BVC said they had a “donor” willing to take the dogs in New Mexico, which was suggested to be one of the ranch estates owned by Ted Turner, the movie mogul and ranch owner. Emails to Mr. Turner’s associates were not returned and his involvement could not be confirmed. BVC said the relocation site “fell through.” And according to a wildlife rehabilitator in New Mexico, a state-to-state relocation had never been done.
In the meantime, Alberta offered a settlement of mitigation. Which, in an extremely basic explanation, means a developer can kill wildlife where they want to build, but protect it in another place which is usually somewhere wildlife doesn’t need protection. WLD said the settlement was unsatisfactory and rejected it calling it “blood money” and saying the money offered wouldn’t have bought nearly enough land for the dogs.
Joe Adair, associate director of BVC, disagreed with WLD’s decision, but said, “This group of Castle Rock activists is very special. Their actions were nothing short of amazing. They didn’t have a lot of experience, and made a few mistakes, but they were activism superstars.”
WLD credits BVC with a successful arbitration, but little else. Ertz said, “BVC took the money and ran, and we’re stuck with the tab.”
BVC, the 2-year old group, has one other relocation effort under it’s belt in Clovis, New Mexico which Adair called a “horror story,” and he fears Castle Rock may end just as badly.
At this point in the negotiations, the few rescued dogs did not have a home and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the agency that wields supreme power over the state’s wildlife, stepped in.
According to SCRPD, On April 6, 2015, CPW sent a text to the permitted-residents who were caring for the dogs, and said they wanted to come out and do a welfare check on them. Once there, escorted by police officers, CPW removed the dogs to await a fate no one knew at the time. The resident was falsely accused of not having a permit, which was broadcast on a television news story, however she later received apologies from the news channel.
Many thought the 87 pups who had been through so much already were doomed.
The thousands watching the event unfold online went ballistic, and picked up their phones. CPW was immediately inundated with desperate pleas to spare the dogs’ lives.
Then the story hit the evening news.
Fox news aired photos of CPW seizing the dogs, interviewed lead activist Deanna Meyer, and shortly after, CPW granted a permit to release the rescued dogs onto her land — land that Meyer said she had offered as a relocation site from the very start of negotiations. Contrary to some reports, she said her land was “never rejected but rather never considered.” The land, already under a conservation easement, is a wildlife haven including a 60-acre meadow almost perfect for the rescued prairie dogs. According to CPW statements, the land is slightly higher in the dogs’ regularly inhabited elevation which is why CPW said the land wasn’t considered in the first place.
At what CPW called an “11th-hour relocation site,” the handful of rescued dogs got a new home. On April 15, prairie dog expert Nervig and local volunteers dug starter-dens and released the pups. The video of that release can be seen on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHKm3I_CYno&feature=share. In the video, the pups are calmly exploring their new digs, and one prairie dog can be seen almost literally jumping for joy.The hearts of supporters jumped for joy as well, and a huge sigh of relief was felt.
However, the happiness was momentary since the clock is still critically ticking for the 300 or so left on the site, and those at the Castle Rock Church whose fate is still unknown.
At present, construction on the site has halted because of signatures gathered for a referendum by a small hardy group of Castle Rock locals, belonging to the Save the Castle Rock Prairie Dog group, with the legal backing of WLD. Activists say that referendum is intended to empower locals when it comes to their town’s development decisions.
Petitioner Stacey Rogers said, “The purpose of the petition is to allow Castle Rock citizens to vote on zoning change. Alberta claims that the amendment makes the development in that area less dense, but the research indicates otherwise.”
While the rescue credit is being debated, it’s immaterial for many, since the bottom line is, 300 or more dogs are in harm’s way and can possibly be saved. The Save the Castle Rock Prairie Dog group are the ones directly working on the relocation now, and their supporters’ motives are altruistic.
According to activists, negotiations are quietly taking place again between Alberta and local rescuers, and activists are suggesting folks kindly ask CPW and Alberta to grant life and liberty to rest of the pups by allowing them to be re-located.
Meyer said CPW allows 10 to 15 relocated prairie dogs per acre. That’s 900 dogs, and under that stipulation, Meyer’s land is more than enough room to accommodate the 300 or so pups left stranded on Alberta’s property now. The bill for that project however is still mounting.
Folks observing from a distance said Alberta is building on a graveyard, and they were naive not to expect an emotional thunderstorm. Supporters said Alberta threw the first punch with the poisoning, and now activists are punching back while the world is watching.
The developer does have the legal right to poison again at any time, but all those interviewed said, “This doesn’t have to happen!”
The Plight of Colorado’s Underdogs
Why is Castle Rock attracting, and deserving, of national attention? Animals all over the globe are vanishing at a devastating rate, and developers are killing prairie dogs all over the west.
The answer is simple: advocates see Castle Rock as a microcosm of what development is doing to the whole world.
“This is Everywhere, USA,” said Brian Ertz of WildLands Defense.
“What developers are doing is a cancer of box stores metastasizing all over small town America,” he said.
Heather Glenn, a Washington State member of SCRPD and proud adopted mother of a pet prairie dog, said it’s nothing new and that’s precisely why it’s so heartbreaking.
“The cries of the people fighting against this atrocity, much like the cries of the animals dying in terror and agony, were summarily dismissed by all parties in positions of power as well as by their new ‘neighbors’ who are dead-set on ramming a glorified strip mall down their throats! The lifeless dirt of the killing grounds in Castle Rock is a reflection of the emptiness in the hearts of those who did this,” she said.
In the west, prairie dogs have almost no right to live at all. They have been stripped of all dignity by every facet of government due to the influence cattle ranching industries, farmers, and oil and gas companies have over law making. And Colorado especially shows no pity on the humble creatures. That’s one fact that’s universally agreed upon by all advocacy groups.
If humans eradicate these keystone species, they will also thereby exterminate the animals who rely on them for food: the endangered black-footed ferret, some species of fox, eagles, badgers and hawks. And potentially the herbivores prairie dogs help feed: bison, pronghorn and mule deer.
The problem for the defenseless animal is essentially their name. Firstly, phobias of rodents are nothing new though the myths are refuted time and time again. Secondly, the species of prairie dogs in Colorado are legally deemed “pests” and land owners are permitted to kill them as they please. As many devoted prairie dogs proponents there are, there are also as many who hate them. Those folks are mostly cattle slaughtering ranchers and others who reap financial gain off the land that the animals inhabited first, or those who’ve never met a prairie dog.
Persecuted as well are the prairie dogs’ cousins: ground squirrels, ground hogs, gophers, beaver and even meerkats (Africa’s prairie dogs who are the lovable stars on Animal Planet’s ‘Meerkat Manor.’)
“Colorado Parks and Wildlife regulations make successful prairie dog re-locations difficult and rare,” said Alberta in their mailer to Castle Rock residents. “Difficult, but not impossible, said Botkin, who’s been relocating for many years in New Mexico where the laws make it much easier to do so. “To get CPW to issue a relocation permit, a relocation site must be secured first,” he said. “Then the decision is put to the county commissioners in the county of the intended relocation site.”
To understand how the state of Colorado feels about prairie dogs, one must only read the title of the Senate Bill 99-111. “Concerning a prohibition against the release of destructive rodent pests into a county without the prior approval of the board of county commissioners of the county.”
Destructive rodent pests? Quite a different perspective than the affectionate chubby pups folks are describing here.
That bill, Botkin said, “Means that the Colorado legislature transferred the role of managing the conservation of a single species to county commissioners, who in general have no training in wildlife conservation. What county commissioners do have, however, is a very strong link to the agricultural constituency of their county, often being personally affiliated with the farm and ranch industry, an industry that is traditionally hostile to prairie dogs.”
Presently, the laws are a different story in neighboring Utah. The Utah prairie dog, an almost indistinguishably different species from the black-tailed dog in Colorado, has been reported to halt construction just by peeking his head out of his den. Of the five species of prairie dogs, two are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Mexican prairie dog and the Utah prairie dog. Unfortunately though, authorities are trying to change those laws as we speak.
But just because an animal isn’t on the endangered list, does he deserve to die?
Development may be the cancer, but wildlife agencies can be the death sentence said advocates.
Animal rehabilitator with the Prairie Dog Pals group in New Mexico, Yvonne Boudreaux, said she has no love for wildlife agencies in the west. “Your tax dollars are funding these mindless thugs to kill everything in their path unless it’s a cow. If you have four legs and fur, and are NOT a cow, it is their policy to kill you.”
As an observer, who said she’s grateful for not being involved in the Castle Rock mess, said, “This is the biggest cock-up I’ve ever seen.
“The developers should have considered the (intense) emotions involved with destroying the largest prairie dog colony left, and CPW could have helped, but rather sat on their hands and let a division between the groups involved take place.”
CPW maintained in a TV interview that the prairie dog habitat in Colorado is alive and well, however do the math folks. If the black-footed ferret, who’s only food source is prairie dog prey, IS endangered, take a wild guess as to who’s next to go on that endangered list.
The unfounded, yet common, defense for killing these animals is from those who make a living off the cattle slaughtered for a meat-eating nation. Cattle ranchers claim cows and horses have broken their legs from stepping on a den. Again, animals are adept at escaping danger, and according to the National Wildlife Federation, and thousands of wildlife experts, “there has never been a documented case of cattle or horses breaking legs from prairie dog holes.” Even a Department of Natural Resources representative in Maryland who grew up on “horse country in Maryland” claimed horses do break legs, but when asked if she could prove that, she said, “Well, that’s what I’ve heard.”
Advocates say it’s quite simply a myth perpetrated by a John Wayne movie. As for the dogs hogging the grass, prairie dogs prefer short grass that’s been nibbled down by other herbivores, and biologists believe the grass grows richer in nutrients where the dogs have aerated the land with their tunnels.
Another misconception about prairie dogs concerns the plague of the 14th century. Prairie dogs don’t carry it, fleas do, and according to the World Health Organization, a whopping average of SEVEN people get plague in the United States. The treatment is simple — antibiotics. Incidentally, humans carry and transmit the plague of the 21st century, HIV the virus that causes AIDS. Enough said.
Boudreaux said prairie dogs have a dry bite, and zoonotic diseases like rabies are transferred through blood and saliva. She said when folks ask if she’s afraid of getting bitten, she responds, “After handling over 24,000 prairie dogs in my life, the only thing I’ve been infected with from them is a low tolerance for people who harm them.”
And she’s not alone. Navajo Native American Indians, who’ve had their share of sand kicked in their face, reportedly revere prairie dogs. “If you destroy the prairie dog, there will be no more rain,” a legend states. According to scientists, the Navajo knew what they were talking about. When 98% of the dogs were eradicated the rains did disappear. No joke. The aeration pups create with their den and tunnel making actually clear the lungs of the soil, and help conduct water back into the air.
To label prairie dogs as pests is beyond ludicrous to those US citizens lucky enough to live in the dozen states that allow prairie dogs as a part of the family.
Folks like Glenn, who have intimate connections to the unquestionably cute animals, say the love she receives from the extremely affectionate pup is no different from that of a canine dog.
“If you don’t like prairie dogs, then it’s only because you have never met one,” she said, along with thousands of folks who know them personally.
“My prairie dog Jack was one of those rare creatures you’re lucky to encounter once or twice in a lifetime,” she said. “His joy and enthusiasm for life was unparalleled. His loyalty and devotion put the best canine to shame.”
“With his bright, shiny eyes and gleefully wiggling tail, even on my darkest days, Jack was always able to make me smile through my tears,” she beamed. “He showed me that there is still magic and wonder in the world.”
Through inconsolable tears of Jack’s passing two months ago, she said, “I still listen for the clickity-click of those little paws and the joyful jump-yips that greeted me every day for so many years. Now where Jack used to be is only an emptiness so vast that it’s all I can do to just remind myself to breathe.
The horror inflicted on the Castle Rock animals and at countless similar sites around our ‘great’ nation,” she said, “is unconscionable.”
She and others ask, does it really all come down to a small patch of government deciding on who deserves to die, and who doesn’t?
Yes, it does.
“How would you like it if it were you?” yelled Anita Rosilina, the animal rescuer and member of SCRPD from New Jersey. Her voice shaking with rage, she shouted to developers, Castle Rock council members, CPW and the entire state of Colorado, “What makes an animal less important than you?”
Whether or not one would cuddle a prairie dog, folks are asking, what is the value of life compared to the value of a strip mall?
Julie Gallagher, the activist from Texas, asks, how many animals’ lives, and limited ecosystems, are we willing to trade for another set of the same old stores? Were the heartbreaking cries of these animals ignored by a corporation and a town council whose ears aren’t sensitive enough to hear them?
“Until a human being makes a heart connection with a wild animal – they will always fear what they don’t understand,” she said. “And what one fears, one destroys.”
And as Steve Irwin, the famed animal ambassador of another demonized species, the crocodile, said, “People will save what they love.”
In hundreds of posts, emails, comments, and dozens of interviews, supporters are ripping their hair out and emphatically asking the same question of Alberta Development, “If there are people willing to rescue and relocate these animals, why won’t you let them?”
Build the damn mall, they said, just let rescuers get the dogs out first.
If Alberta says yes, then it’s up to CPW. Trent Boktin, the veteran re-locator, said, “The money’s there, the relocation sites are there, the public will is there, the muscle on the ground is there. It all comes down to getting approval from CPW and the board of county commissioners.”
So what’s the plan? WildLands Defense along with other prairie dog advocacy groups are devoted to changing laws to let the dogs simply live. And according to SCRPD, negotiations are still quietly going on between developers and local animal rescuers to halt another disaster. In essence, a relocation site must be secured for CPW to grant a permit, and the law already in place makes this a tricky situation.
And meanwhile back at the Meyer ranch, the 87 prairie dogs who survived the capture, relocation, and living in troughs for weeks, are doing just fine. They’re eating, playing, snuggling down in their new human-made dens, and they seem deliriously happy.
To those who love animals, this has been called a “9/11 of wildlife.” And the distress whistles of the terrified prairie dogs dying underground, are no less painful to them then the bone-chilling whistles heard from firefighters trapped under mounds of rubble at ground zero.
Some may think that extreme, but in the hearts of folks who’ve been honored by these animals’ trust, it is truly just as heartbreaking. Animals will often fight to the death to protect their own, and to these empathic folks, ALL animals are their own kind.
“Animals keep the planet in balance,” Gallagher said, “The only pests on the planet are humans!”
This has been another terrorist attack on wildlife, said advocates, and they have had ENOUGH!
The motives of developers, the town council and the exterminators for killing the prairie dogs is essentially money. For the countless people mourning the lives lost, and those desperately trying to save the rest, it’s not about a mall, or politics, or money — it’s about Love.
Suzanne Grover is a freelance journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. All copyrights belong to Ms. Grover. This article may be shared through email and Facebook, but news organizations must email Ms. Grover directly for a reprint permission agreement.