Feb 292012
Authors: Jason Pohl

Animal rights groups and concerned residents are lashing out against the potential gassing and extermination of prairie dogs to make way for a new student housing development in one north Fort Collins community.

Aspen Heights –– a national chain providing student housing and family residences –– is behind the 200-unit-project that will house nearly 700 students. But part of the nearly 30-acre site is home to a colony of hundreds of prairie dogs, raising questions –– and tempers –– with nearby residents since it was first discussed at a community forum in December.

“They were here first, and we shouldn’t just go through and take out a species and totally destroy the ecosystem in the name of development,” said Lori Nitzel, a 37-year-old Fort Collins resident whose home overlooks the intricate prairie dog colony that could be wiped by the development.

The proposed site is north of New Belgium Brewing Company and east of Lee Martinez Park and College Avenue. It has been approved by the city, with no new zoning amendments needing to be made.

“They (Aspen Heights) can do something here, and they should,” Nitzel added.

The ideal answer for everyone involved is a relocation, but with that comes numerous hurdles including finding a suitable location and paying for the transport.

Additionally, city and county governments would have to approve any new additions of prairie pups to their public lands in cooperation with Senate Bill 99-111.

Plus, landowners in potential relocation areas would need to agree to the change.

“Aspen Heights is actively looking for land to relocate the prairie dogs from the existing property,” Charlie Vatterott, vice president of development for Aspen Heights, said in an email to the Collegian. “Thus far, our efforts have been unsuccessful.”

Vatterott added that Aspen Heights officials are working to strike a balance with the community members and the other interested parties. They have even hired a wildlife biologist to help with the the complex problem.

Regardless, they acknowledged there are no easy answers.

“Feedback from the Fort Collins community has been extremely helpful,” Vatterott said. “We welcome additional feedback.”

The issue has now drawn attention from Rams Organizing for Animal Rights (ROAR), one animal advocacy group at CSU.

The group is led by Angie Rodgers, a senior art education major at CSU. As president of the club, Rodgers is organizing letter-writing campaigns and social media advocacy on the Aspen Heights Facebook page.

She said the developers have been very cooperative during this difficult issue, but she hopes that, with enough student input, the right decision can be made –– even if it might not be the cheapest option.

“We feel like we need to be the voice for this cause,” Rodgers said. “It’s a local issue that pertains to our community and to CSU.”

She stressed the project is especially geared toward students. For that reason, the student voice needs to be active, especially in shaping the future of this community and all things living in it.

“I think in an ideal world, you would leave them where they are,” she said. “But I think, realistically, it’s about humanely moving them to a new place. It’s hard, but it’s far better than killing off a whole community of animals.”

Moving forward, Aspen Heights plans to break ground this fall and open for students in 2013, according to Vatterott. The future of the prairie dogs remains uncertain, but everyone involved is at least hoping for the best, even while preparing for the worst.

“There’s a win-win option here for everybody,” Nitzel said, stressing that the ultimate answer might take some sacrifice from everyone involved.“There’s definitely some options. Let’s start thinking outside of the box.”

Senior Reporter Jason Pohl can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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