Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Denver's Wildlife Oasis

Bald eagles and bison within view of the Denver skyline? From wasteland to wonderland, Rocky Mountain Arsenal's once-toxic military dumping grounds is now home to its own veritable army of native species.



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Our tour continued along the southern side, which included unexpectedly beautiful forested wetlands. We soon saw herds of mule deer as well as clusters of white-tailed deer, a woodland species we had rarely encountered in other parts of Colorado. The quantities were astounding, and the antlers on the bucks would put any national park to shame. Lockhart reminded us these deer had not been hunted in more than 40 years, which is one of the surest ways to build a population of really big bucks.

As we passed lakes Ladora and Lower Derby, the open water was filled with waterfowl. Lockhart made a quick stop at the rod and gun club, a facility common to most military installations, which had been used for target shooting and fishing. It was a bit ironic that dozens of pheasants and quail scooted confidently across the road in front of us here.

We approached the eastern boundary and the First Creek drainage, where Lockhart pointed out the long line of cottonwood trees that soon would be used by wintering bald eagles. There could be 30 to 40 eagles in the trees each night, he said – an incredible statement considering we were in sight of downtown Denver.

 

 

Lockhart turned the truck north along the perimeter road, and as it opened up to a prairie habitat, we looked out on hundreds, then easily thousands of prairie dogs sunning at the edge of their burrows and feeding on the short grass. The prairie dogs were prey for the ferruginous hawks that watched over the colonies, perched on abandoned telephone poles with no wires.

We looked through the expanse with binoculars and spotted a couple of golden eagles and more hawks standing motionless on the ground among the endless prairie dog burrows. We drove on. By this time, we’d already seen three or four coyotes, and every direction showed such overwhelming numbers of animals we were losing count, even though we’d only seen half of the arsenal.

It was beginning to be wildlife overload, and Lockhart didn’t know it at that time, but we had decided to take on the project five minutes after we passed the security gate. It was a wildlife photographer’s paradise, and we were like kids in a candy store.

 

SELLING THE IDEA

To get people to care about Rocky Mountain Arsenal, they first had to know about it, and we were given the enviable job of creating the images to tell the story.

The timing worked perfectly, as just two months earlier we had created the Colorado Urban Wildlife Partnership to raise awareness of wild animals living in and around cities. We introduced the Fish and Wildlife biologists to the rest of the partnership: the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Colorado Wildlife Federation, Denver Audubon and the Denver Zoo. They all helped spread the word about preserving this open space.

Biologist Gober and I escorted Urling Kingery of Denver Audubon around the arsenal. Kingery was amazed at all the animals she saw.

“Right next to us a prairie dog was killed by a ferruginous hawk, and then a bald eagle flew in and took that away,” she said, remembering that first visit. “Then a coyote came and chased the eagle off the prairie dog.”

Denver Audubon just completed its 25th winter bird count on the arsenal, and Kingery still leads it.

The partnership and other community groups worked with Fish and Wildlife to start a public outreach program. They started Bald Eagle Days open houses in 1991, and public perception changed rapidly. Thousands attended the events, and nearly 10,000 free calendars were given out featuring our photos.

As the arsenal has evolved over the years, so has its relationship with Commerce City, the community just outside its gates. The arsenal provided jobs for the city when it was still in production mode, but it also became the source of contaminants seeping off-site through the groundwater, causing significant health concerns for those living within sight and smell of the facility. One of our earliest photographs was of a large hand-painted sign at an affected residential area across from the arsenal, reading “Governor’s Arsenal Getaway.”

When she was a child, lifelong Commerce City resident Reba Drotar would slip under the fence to play on the arsenal grounds. She knew it as a place where many of her neighbors worked and where there were a lot of animals. As an adult, Drotar fought hard for the cleanup and became mayor pro tem specifically for the arsenal project, where she was instrumental in acquiring 917 acres on the western edge for Commerce City.

“The biggest challenge in bringing the arsenal to this point was convincing people that it was worth saving,” Drotar said. “Now the arsenal is responsible for a complete transformation of Commerce City.”

There’s a new high school, a new civic center and the new Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, which is home of the largest soccer stadium in the United States, as well as 24 new soccer fields.

 

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