By Jesse Moya
The Taos News
Over the roar of giant construction engines, small chirps made by frantic prairie dogs can still be heard in a freshly plowed field once dotted with the small piles of dirt marking the homes of the desert-dwelling rodents.
More than a year in the works, the empty lot at 118 Toalne Road in Taos has recently seen some activity. Construction vehicles and water trucks have been preparing for the new addition to the Taos Integrated School of the Arts building. The new campus will bring the charter school together after operating classes in two separate buildings for more than five years. Construction is scheduled to be completed sometime in September.
And while the school has met all official town requirements for the campus' construction, including a special use permit to operate in a multifamily residential zone, the construction will displace and potentially kill the prairie dog colonies that previously made the lot their home.
According to town of Taos officials, there are no ordinances or laws requiring a builder, contractor or resident to preserve a prairie dog population on a given piece of land. The animals are currently not protected in Taos or on an endangered species list. There is no official obligation for the town of Taos or the people therein to preserve the habitat or relocate the animals.
Required or not, some people think the prairie dog deserves more respect and protection.
"They're an important species," said Patricia Carlton, president of the nonprofit People for Native Ecosystems. "They're really crucial for the survival of any prairie wilderness or outdoor areas in the country."
PNE is an advocacy group for the protection and continuation of the prairie dog species. In the past, the group has worked with relocation projects to remove the animals from one site and place them in another. Several cities across the U.S., including Santa Fe, have sanctions against building on the animal's homes and the prairie dogs must be relocated before a building can proceed on certain properties.
Removal of prairie dogs from a site can be costly, but advocates say it is more than worth it to save what they call a "keystone species" in the food chain, animals that other species in an ecosystem depend on. According to Carlton, the city of Santa Fe has set aside $30,000 annually for the removal of the animals, as costs per removal event can reach the several thousand-dollar mark. To remove the prairie dogs, a soap bubble solution is used to coax the animals out of their holes and into temporary cages. Once the entire colony is evacuated and accounted for, augers drill holes in a new location and the prairie dogs are placed in their new home.
Although officials from TISA were not aware of any relocation projects in town, they said the school would not be against the moving of the animals if someone were to lend a hand in doing so.
"If someone wanted to do that and they had all of the insurance and weren't there when the equipment was, they can do whatever they want to help, but no one has asked us to do that," said TISA Governing Council President Jill Cline. "We're not purposely doing anything to try and displace or harm them."
The school applied for a special use permit to operate the school near a residential area in 2016 and was granted the approval from the town to operate. According to Cline, there was an environmental study conducted on the land prior to the construction of the buildings. However, no changes came back to the school. Cline said that nowhere along the phases of purchasing or construction on the land was the school told of any issues with building on the location.
Town officials stated there have been projects in the past where landowners and contractors have worked with the population of the animals on pieces of land and have even incorporated them in the design of the lot in some cases. Special plots of open space on a property can be designated as a safe area for the prairie dogs if the owner chooses to go about that route.
"You don't have to get rid of them," said John Miller, town of Taos senior planner. "It's touchy because they do provide habitat for burrowing owls and snakes."
According to Carlton, the prairie dog is a vital part of food chain, providing food for the black-footed ferret. In addition, the vacant holes created by the prairie dogs provide homes for burrowing owls.
Cline said the school would be more than happy to look at relocation projects with people who are interested in paying for the venture and have the right credentials for moving the animals. The school, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade, teaches visual arts, music, theater and dance while integrating the subjects into general education for its students. Cline also said the school is not in favor of intentionally killing the animals and hopes someone will step forward with an interest to move them.
"They're not going to move on their own," said Carlton. "They're not going to just go away."