Prairie dogs get reprieve
State repeals order to kill animals in Lubbock
to allow further study
By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News
Citing a need for additional scientific
study, the state's chief environmental agency has rescinded an order
directing the city of Lubbock to exterminate thousands of prairie
dogs at its wastewater disposal farm, the agency's director said Monday.
The announcement came the same day that
a coalition of environmental and animal rights groups filed suit in
state district court in Austin challenging the agency's order and
a related city plan to kill thousands of the animals this winter.
Margaret Hoffman, executive director of
the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said officials reached
the decision after meeting last week with the head of the Texas Department
of Parks and Wildlife.
The parks department, the state's chief
wildlife protection agency, had joined with federal wildlife officials
and environmental groups objecting to TCEQ's determination that prairie
dogs caused rising underground water pollution problems at the Lubbock
A spokesman for one of the environmental
groups praised the reversal.
"It's a pleasant surprise," said Scott
Royder, director of the Texas office of Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility. "We're pleased that TCEQ finally appears to be moving
in a scientifically sound direction."
A Lubbock city employee said the mayor
and city manager were in meetings Monday and unavailable for comment.
The city has used the 6,000-acre farm
since the 1930s to dispose of its sewage wastewater, spraying about
8 million gallons of effluent a day on about 3,000 acres of rye grass
But so much water has been put on the
site over the years that a large pool laden with high levels of nitrates
from sewage water has collected about 70 feet underground. Since 1989,
the farm has been under a state cleanup order because the nitrates
- a health hazard - have seeped into wells and threaten the Ogallala
Lubbock officials have complained for
several years that prairie dogs have spread rapidly on the farm since
State wildlife experts and others have
estimated that 40,000 to 60,000 prairie dogs occupy about 750 acres
of the farm. Fewer than a third of them live in areas are under irrigation.
City officials and wildlife experts say they moved onto the farm at
the same time city officials switched to pasture grass - a practice
that brings the city about $500,000 annually from cattle grazing.
In June, the state environmental office
formally notified the city that prairie dog burrows could allow wastewater
nitrates to seep into the groundwater and ordered a plan to deal with
The city's response, approved by the agency
in September, called for gassing or poisoning the farm's entire prairie
dog population this winter, after federally protected burrowing owls
use the prairie dog burrows for nests.
Wildlife advocates noted that TCEQ's June
order and subsequent approval of Lubbock's extermination plan were
baffling, because the agency's own groundwater experts had complained
since 1999 that city mismanagement and noncompliance with a state-approved
pollution remediation plan caused the nitrate problem.
Ms. Hoffman said Monday that her agency
had received "quite a few phone calls and e-mails" complaining about
its role in the prairie dog debate.
"We have already instituted the procedures
here to amend that notice of violation, to remove the assessment of
blame against the prairie dogs and to ask the city of Lubbock to further
assess the scientific basis, the underlying scientific reasons for
the spikes of nitrates are occurring, and to give us a plan to address
all the potential causes," she said.
She said the decision to issue a formal
order citing the prairie dogs may have been premature.
"When the inspector looked at the area,
what he saw was that there had been a dramatic increase in prairie
dogs and a decrease in the amount of grass," she said. "That does
not necessarily mean ... the prairie dogs are the cause of the problem."
State and federal wildlife experts who
have looked at the farm's prairie dog towns say they believe bare
areas where grass no longer grows are due to salt contamination arising
from the city's wastewater irrigation program.
Ms. Hoffman said her agency will decide
after visiting with city officials on how much more time Lubbock will
be given to submit a new plan for dealing with the nitrate woes.
"Sixty days may be a reasonable time,"
she said. "They have had a groundwater contamination problem there
for quite a while."
Ms. Hoffman said the agency might still
consider city arguments that the prairie dogs contribute to the farm's
continuing groundwater nitrate spikes. And if scientific evidence
backs that up, the director said, the city will have to "determine
a reasonable plan" for addressing the problem.
Environmental groups say that prospect
will keep them from dropping their legal battle any time soon.
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