Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU law students convince wildlife officials to ponder prairie dogs’ fate

They endured nearly two hours of questioning and emotional opposition, but two students from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law at least have Colorado wildlife officials’ ear.

Working through the law school’s Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, students Jessica Torbin and Rebecca Wimmer have taken up the cause of the prairie dog. In a petition to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the two argue the diminutive burrowers should be off limits to gun enthusiasts who enjoy using the animals as target practice.

After displaying examples of Web sites that hawk videos of gunmen with large-caliber weapons pulverizing the unsuspecting prairie dogs and leaving their gruesome carcasses behind, the two convinced the Colorado Wildlife Commission to at least consider some type of ban on the practice.

“What these prairie dog shooters seem to be doing is sitting back shooting one, after another, after another,” Wimmer told commissioners. “This conduct is not hunting, and it should be banned.”

In addition to seeming in opposition to state hunting principles of fair chase and wasting game by leaving the carcasses to rot where they fall, the two argue that the practice of killing just for amusement violates state prohibitions against using live animals for target practice.

The two stressed their proposal would not ban legitimate hunting or prohibit regulated removal of nuisance prairie dog colonies by humane means.

Wendy Keefover-Ring, from the WildEarth Guardians, added the mass shootings remove an important food source for predators and endanger animals, including eagles and hawks, that ingest lead from bullet fragments as they feed on dead prairie dogs.

Commissioners grilled the team over how wide-ranging a requested new regulation would be and about the science behind their arguments. Several voiced concerns that any new regulation would harm ranchers or legitimate sportsmen, but each said the practices shown on gory videos and photos the DU team presented disgusted them.

Commissioner Roy McAnally called the scenes “reprehensible and disgusting.”

And despite hearing from several members of the hunting and ranching public protesting any restriction on shooting prairie dogs, commissioners agreed the petition should be studied further. The panel, which oversees Colorado hunting and fishing rules, is expected to review the matter again at a May hearing.

Torbin, a third-year law student, says the hours spent preparing the petition were difficult, but worth the effort. The two have been working with Environmental Law Clinic instructors Jay Tutchton and Kay Bond, who oversee their efforts and are present for hearings.

“This is a good way to get into the legislative process and see how government works,” Torbin says of the work.

Her colleague, Wimmer, is a second-year student who earned a master’s degree in environmental law from DU in 2005. She says she’s always been interested in environmental issues.

“This is a great way to work with real cases and real clients,” she says. “It’s real-world experience.”

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