A team is in the midst of relocating prairie dogs on the currently vacant land near the Celestial Seasonings tea factory in Gunbarrel that ultimately will be home to an apartment complex.
A trap set by Smith Environmental and Engineering remains near the Celestial Seasonings factory near Gunbarrel on Monday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Throughout the multiyear review process, Gunbarrel residents regularly expressed concerns about the potential impact of the development on land that is thought of as somewhat of a community hub in an area that often feels separate from Boulder, despite much of it being located within the city. But in discussions about the project, the idea that the development could result in hundreds of prairie dogs being killed was a regular theme.
For many community members who spent years pushing back on the development, the fact that relocation efforts are ongoing is a huge win, one that offers a sense of relief. This is perhaps particularly true for members of the Gunbarrel Community Alliance, a community organization with more than 500 members that formed in response to the development near Celestial Seasonings.
“This is a very happy moment for us to get them all relocated,” Gunbarrel Community Alliance board member Dorothy Donohue said. “We’ve all been on high alert for two years, just hoping that this would happen.”
“It’s been pretty amazing, right? That we’re able to do it,” board member Julie Dye added.
A prairie dog peers out from a burrow in a field near Spine Road and Gunbarrel Avenue on Monday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Prairie dogs are a keystone species, on which many depend for survival — either using prairie dogs as a prey source or their burrows for shelter. However, the animals also are known for invading agricultural land, sometimes degrading soil health and rendering land unusable for farmers and ranchers. This dichotomy often creates tension in the community.
The Gunbarrel project, which Boulder City Council officially greenlighted last summer, will bring 230 apartments, a café, library, art space and community areas, as well as a mobility hub and green space to an almost 10-acre site at 4775, 4725 and 4649 Spine Road.
A quarter of the apartments will be designated for on-site permanently affordable housing, and the developer agreed to add six Habitat for Humanity homes.
According to earlier reporting by the Camera, Celestial Seasonings more than 20 years ago told community members it would preserve the area now set for development as a prairie dog habitat. That decision was influenced by community outrage about the company killing the animals on its property. However, there is no formal agreement with the city to protect the animals or the land.
When the City Council approved the development plans by opting against calling up the project for further review, the project team agreed to consider relocating the colony located on the land but said they had thus far been unsuccessful in finding areas suitable for relocation.
According to members of the Gunbarrel Community Alliance, the prairie dogs will be relocated to Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, a former nuclear weapons parts manufacturing plant 10 miles south of Boulder, which opened in 2018 for public recreation after a $7 billion cleanup effort there.
In order to relocate prairie dog colonies there, the Celestial Seasonings site had to be selected through a lottery process.
The team with Smith Environmental has moved about 140 prairie dogs and is allowed to relocate up to 175, Alliance board members noted.
Relocation includes trapping the prairie dogs in cages. They are enticed with food and are not injured when the trap closes. The relocation team keeps prairie dog families together as the animals are moved to their new home.
If any prairie dogs are unable to be relocated, they will be killed, which is primarily done through lethal methods such as carbon monoxide.