CRETE, Neb. (AP) — Volunteers have rescued about 230 prairie dogs that came under threat after a Nebraska university sold its research lab land to farmers who planned to dispose of the animal colony.

Doane University sold its 320-acre (130-hectare) Fillmore County property to soybean farmers in April. Conservationists and animal lovers had criticized the more than $2.6 million sale of the Aldrich Prairie Research Site for endangering the prairie dog colony.

The land had been used for student research into prairie dog behavior for years. Maureen Franklin, Doane's former vice president for academic affairs, had said in a letter to the university that its decision not to protect the prairie dogs was "academically short-sighted and not in keeping" with the school's ethical values.

Conservation groups Nebraska Wildlife Rehabilitation and Audubon of Kansas oversaw about 30 volunteers who trapped and relocated the prairie dogs to Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary near Bassett last month.

The Prairie Dog Coalition of Boulder, Colorado trained volunteers on how to properly handle the animals, said Laura Stastny, executive director of Nebraska Wildlife. The process involves baiting small cage-traps with sweet horse feed.

Stastny said the rescued animals are integrating well into their new sanctuary and consolidating into family groups.

The project cost an estimated total of $35,000, Stastny said. The university donated $20,000 to the cause.

Nebraska Wildlife will keep about 50 young prairie dogs at its Fort Calhoun facility until August.

Stastny said prairie dogs are often seen as a nuisance, but are key to prairie ecosystems. Prairie dogs serve as prey to badgers and hawks, as well as homemakers for insects, squirrels and burrowing owls, she said.

"A lot of states kind of villainize prairie dogs, so their colonies are being eradicated," she said. "But they are an exemplar of the interconnectiveness of nature."