Challenges Of An Urban Wildlife Refuge

DENVER- The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge sits 8 miles northeast of downtown Denver.  Prairie dogs sit watchfully on their hind legs while deer and bison keep their heads down mowing the prairie covering 15,988 acres.

The skyline and smokestacks towering in the distance remind visitors of their proximity to urban life.   This contrast between urban and natural landscapes wasn’t always so clear.  For much of its history, this land was used as a chemical weapons manufacturing center. Portions also were leased to private companies for pesticide production.  Testing of the site’s groundwater in 1987 revealed the extreme contamination.  The Rocky Mountain Arsenal was added to the National Priorities List for Superfund cleanup.

Today, David Lucas of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages the refuge.  Lucas oversees over 300 species on the arsenal. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the refuge every year.

Lucas said managing an urban refuge comes with many challenges.  Prairie Dogs, a keystone species for the refuge, are exposed to human caused diseases such as the Sylvatic plague.  This is bacteria is more known for causing the bubonic plague.  It’s now responsible for wiping out millions of rodents every year.

“We are doing a ton of work to try to prevent sylvatic plague,” Lucas said.

USFW is currently experimenting with a variety of techniques to prevent a disease outbreak.  Refuge crews spray for fleas which are the vector of the disease and vaccinate with a vaccine infused into blue died peanut butter balls.  Blue poop is a sure sign a prairie dog community is protected.

With outside a densely populated urban area so close to the refuge, USFW has to find innovative ways to manage threats and pests.

Cheatgrass is an invasive plant which is harmful to the native prairie grasses. The Chemical company Bayer is giving the rufuge the herbicide Esplanade to manage the cheatgrass population.

Agri-chemicals were the primary culprit in the pollution of the Arsenal but Lucas said Rocky Mountain Arsenal is an ideal place to be testing new chemical products.

“If you’re testing a chemical, do you really want to throw in into the wildest most pristine prairie on the planet?  Probably not,” he said.

The refuge is hopeful the agri-chemicals will be beneficial to the landscape and won’t add to further pollution.  Lucas said there are a lot of variables that go into running a refuge and trying to please everyone.

“I can’t do my job if I’m not thinking about my neighbors, if I’m not thinking about industry, and if I’m not thinking about the realities of our planet,” Lucas said.

RMA is subject to many outside influences as an urban refuge.  The reality for management is they must innovate and be ahead of the curve to successfully manage the refuge.

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