Donkey defenders stand between coyotes and a herd of sheep

Quincy Snowdon
Aurora Sentinel

AURORA, CO -  It takes a real ass to stand up to a band of coyotes.

And it takes two asses to keep the wild dogs at bay while simultaneously corralling some 130 roving eaters that have hundreds of acres of grassland to till.

Lee Lindhold, park ranger, greets Maria (left) and Paco, on Saturday June 24 at Plains Conservation Center. The two donkeys along with over 100 sheep were introduced to the open space to stimulate the growth of native grasses.

But such is the task for Paco and Maria, a pair of local donkeys charged with protecting a recently introduced herd of sheep at the city's freshly reopened Plains Conservation Center.

For the past month, scores of rams and ewes have been eating their way through some 1,000 acres of prairie grasslands at the conservation center, slowly aerating the arid soil and promoting the growth of a new generation of grasses.

As part of a so-called "holistic conservation grazing program," the herd is attempting to imitate the grazing and fertilization patterns mammals like bison would have naturally left on the land hundreds of years ago, before the first European settlers arrived, according to Eric Watts, superintendent of open space and natural resources for the city.

"This type of grazing is pretty unique — it's very specific and labor intensive because the sheep need to be moved regularly so they don't over-graze," Watts said. "We try to mimic how bison would have moved through the grasses, eaten some and then moved along."

The group's stubborn overseers, however, are indeed an unusual addition to the grazing effort, according to Watts.

"When they said they were going to protect them with donkeys I said, 'OK, are you sure?'" he said. "But it turns out that donkeys, by their very nature, are very protective animals. The coyotes don't want to mess with an animal that's that much bigger than them.

"There's this indescribable relationship between the sheep and the donkeys where (the sheep) know (the donkeys) are there to protect them," he added.

The city got Paco and Maria, along with the flock of sheep, from Willow Creek Pastures, a ranch in Castle Rock. Watts said the Willow Creek crew got Paco locally, while Maria was originally a wild donkey born in Arizona on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Watts said the herd eats its way through about 15 acres every three days. He said the bunch will remain at the conservation center until the end of August, at which point they'll return to their home in Castle Rock for the winter. The animals will resume their duties at the Aurora site next spring.

So-called holistic grazing stormed into vogue about four years ago, after humanitarian and conservationist Allan Savory touted the practice in a widely disseminated TED Talk. In the years since the address, however, other conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, have questioned the merits of Savory's grazing principles.

The Plains Conservation Center nonprofit organization, which managed the site in Aurora for the better part of the past decade, started looking into holistic grazing at the compound last year, according to Watts. The conservation center nonprofit agency is teed up to work closely with Savory's own nonprofit organization, The Savory Institute, at the Plains Center's massive satellite campus south of Strasburg in the future.

At the site, local hikers are invited to watch the gaggle of sheep and donkeys munch their way through the plains near the center seven days a week, Watts said. He added that city staffers also recently discovered a bald eagle's nest on the property.

The center informally reopened to the public June 24, marking the newest chapter in the facility's more than 75-year history. After a period of inactivity last year, the city officially assumed management duties of the PCC site in April.

Lingering funding woes played a part in the city's decision to nab management of the property from the eponymous nonprofit that had managed the area for the past six years, according to city documents from a recent city council study session.

The Plains Center in Aurora plans to continue its educational partnership with the Denver Botanic Gardens, which offers classes and field trip programs at the site throughout the year, Watts said.

Established as an education center in 1949, the Plains Conservation center is one of the only parcels of remnant prairie that has never been plowed in Colorado, according to Pat Schuler, manager of open space and natural resources for the city.

With the help of a recently hired, full-time naturalist and ranger, Watts said he's excited to once again ramp up programming at the historic Aurora facility.

"This is such a unique space out here, and we want it to be a real community asset," he said. "The more people who know about it the better."