Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to visit your community of Telluride. A longtime friend who lives there asked me to stop on my trip through Colorado from Mesa Verde to Denver and places north. I live in Hawai`i and had not been to Telluride prior to this trip. Approaching town, I noticed a car parked on the shoulder, the two occupants were looking at the prairie dogs across a fence…I stopped to look too.
Two days earlier I had traveled round-trip on the narrow gauge Durango - Silverton train. On the return to Durango my wife and I were in a car with a large group of French tourists. We had hoped for a quieter ride than the trip north, but not to be – the French group and their guide spoke incessantly, paying almost no attention to the views from the train until we were approaching Durango and someone noticed the prairie dogs. Conversations that had gone on for the entire trip ended abruptly. Nearly everyone in the group crowded to the east side windows to see the prairie dogs and get pictures!
I understand that the Telluride community is trying to decide how to deal with your prairie dog colony. Although I am not a resident, I have felt compelled to present my perspective on this, even though I may simply be restating points already made by some of you who live in Telluride. I have worked most of my professional career on wildlife problems and though now retired, I continue to volunteer the equivalent of a 40 hour work week to conservation of native Hawaiian coastal habitat on the island of Hawai`i – hoping the restored habitat will aid recovery of some of our rare species suffering from habitat loss due to coastal development. Restoration of “native” communities/ecosystems ranges from difficult to impossible. It is a costly process and never as complete as if a preservation strategy had been undertaken in the first place. We have lost so many pieces of the native ecosystems in Hawai`i, we really do need to try to save or restore where possible the little remnants that are left. The same holds for the west, including your small piece of montane prairie meadow that is home to the indigenous Gunnison’s prairie dog.
I think the town of Telluride is to be commended for holding on to this remnant of the “wild” prairie. You are fortunate to have this little, but important, relic of the far too fast vanishing landscape of the west. It is a treasure you can pass to future Telluride generations and to all who visit there. You could make it a very educational experience with some strategically placed viewing platforms and literature. And, certainly let the French know… they will come!
The case for preservation of the Telluride prairie dog colony is best made by Wallace Stegner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and an early writer on preservation of western wilderness. The excerpts below are from Stegner’s famous 1960 “wilderness letter.” Please read these few sentences and consider Stegner’s thoughts as you contemplate the future of your piece of the prairie.
“The American experience has been the confrontation by old peoples and cultures of a world as new as if it had just arisen from the sea. That gave us our hope and our excitement, and the hope and excitement can be passed on to newer Americans, Americans who never saw any phase of the frontier. But only so long as we keep the remainder of our wild as a reserve and a promise – a sort of wilderness bank.
“But as the wilderness areas are progressively exploited or ‘improved,’ as the jeeps and bulldozers of uranium prospectors scar up the deserts and the roads are cut into the alpine timberlands, and as the remnants of the unspoiled and natural world are progressively eroded, every such loss is a little death in me. In us.
“A prairie…is as good a place as any for the wilderness experience to happen; the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the alpine forests.
“That is the reason we need to put into effect, for its preservation, some other principle than the principle of exploitation or ‘usefulness’ or even recreation. We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”