An alumna of Doane College, Margaret Aldrich granted a one-half section of fertile Fillmore County land to her alma mater in 2000, and with it, what's believed to be the easternmost colony of black-tailed prairie dogs in Nebraska.
Students at what's now known as Doane University used the small prairie dog town as a research lab, observing the animals' grooming behaviors and movements in a natural habitat as part of their environmental science coursework.
Eighteen years after the Aldrich site was added to Doane's portfolio of farms and other property gifted by alumni, the university's board of trustees decided to sell it and return the proceeds to its endowment, which provides scholarships to students.
Situated in the middle of land owned by a trio of lifelong farmers — brothers James, Robert and John Lovegrove — in northeast Fillmore County, the 320-acre Aldrich site sold for $2.6 million, according to records at the county assessor's office.
It's the fifth time Doane has sold off a substantial piece of property in the past decade, a university spokesman said, in line with the board of trustees' investment policies.
As the sale closed at the end of April, Maureen Franklin, a former vice president for academic affairs at Doane, said she was dismayed nothing more had been done to save the prairie dog colony that has existed on the property for some 75 years.
Franklin, who was dean of the college when the land was donated, wrote to Doane's board that more should have been done to save the prairie dogs. She suggested a conservation easement could have been written into the sale to protect the colony in perpetuity.
She also said Doane could have kept the colony and established a permanent research lab on the site, or relocated the prairie dogs to a new location.
"Destroying the prairie dogs by providing no ongoing protection for them is academically short-sighted and not in keeping with Doane's ethical values," Franklin wrote.
Russ Souchek, a professor of environmental science at Doane who took as many as 12 students to the Aldrich Prairie for research opportunities while Doane owned the land, said efforts were made to save the site, even though it's 40 miles from campus, and some years it was unused by student researchers.
"When I was told it was going to be sold, the logical thing I thought to do would be to reach out to any organizations I could think of and ask if they were interested in buying it or at least knowing about it," Souchek said.
Those organizations, which included the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, didn't reach out to the property's farm manager, however.
Nebraska Wildlife Federation Executive Director J.J. Johnson said the nonprofit conservation group, of which Souchek is also a board member, was concerned about Doane's plan to sell the site, but that there was little the organization could do to protect the unique ecosystem at the time.
Other faculty were also made aware the university planned to sell off the farm, but no one spoke up until the sale was finalized, a Doane spokesman said.
Furthermore, the Aldrich family placed only one stipulation on Doane if the land gifted to the university was to be sold: First ask a family friend if they wanted to buy it.
That happened, Doane said, but the family friend declined.
Christin Lovegrove, an attorney representing the Lovegrove family, said the purchase was "a pretty solid piece of farmland right in the middle of our farming operation."
While the family has no intention of keeping the prairie dog colony, saying the animals have encroached onto and damaged their adjacent fields, the families also gave Doane plenty of time to take action, Lovegrove said.
"We are more than willing to work with Doane in whatever way we can to find a solution for these prairie dogs and where they need to go," she said. "We just want it to happen sooner rather than later."
Prairie dogs found a limelight in the Nebraska Legislature this year, as Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers led an effort to repeal a 2012 law allowing government officials to go onto a landowner's property to exterminate the animals without permission.
Lawmakers gave Chambers' bill (LB449) their approval, but Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the measure, saying it infringed upon the property rights of "responsible landowners."
Wednesday, Franklin said conservation groups, including the Kansas Audubon, have discussed a last-ditch plan to move the colony, but she admitted it would be tricky.
The prairie dogs are now in their breeding season, which would make it difficult to trap and move them, and studies have shown 90 percent of the animals would likely die moving to a new home.
Still, it would be worth trying, she said. "It's better than letting 100 percent die."