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Scott Royder: Lubbock plan to eliminate prairie dogs full of holes

Dallas Morning News, 09/07/2002


Something is rotten in the state of Texas.

As many people now know, Lubbock is planning to destroy thousands of prairie dogs living on an expanse of land east of town. The city says its hands are tied: that state regulators have ordered the dogs' removal because - get this - they are contaminating the area's groundwater.

The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission has made that dubious determination based on ... well, not much of anything. The state regulators plainly admit that their order to "control" the prairie dog population isn't backed by a single scientific study.

But Lubbock is more than eager to comply. In fact, city officials have been trying to remove the critters for years because ranchers view the dogs as pesky varmints that compete for forage and dig burrows where cattle can stumble.

In June, the state regulators issued Lubbock an official "notice of violation" that claims "prairie dogs have been allowed to proliferate across the Lubbock land application site to such a degree as to create conditions which could possibly lead to groundwater contamination." The solution? A plan "to control the prairie dog population across the site." Just what the city had been waiting for!

But let's back up. The area in question is a "land application site." That means Lubbock has dumped its treated human waste on the site for the better part of a century. In fact, the site receives up to 14 million gallons of muck every day - an amount that steadily has increased to much more than the land can handle.

So how is it that prairie dogs, rather than outdated sewage management practices, are at fault?

As Lubbock environmental officer Dan Dennison told one reporter, "You don't need a scientific study to know that water runs down holes." Maybe not, but even a cursory look shows the critters don't exactly dig to China. While the region's water table sits between 50 and 90 feet deep, prairie dog burrows rarely run deeper than 5 feet.

In fact, the only available evidence indicates that the presence of prairie dogs actually may reduce the amount of effluent reaching the water table. Their burrows aerate the soil and prevent compaction, which promotes the growth of the range grasses necessary to absorb water - including treated wastewater.

With 3,000 head of cattle currently overgrazing the site, it is no wonder the groundwater is contaminated. In fact, the cows were moved onto the site about the same time the prairie dogs arrived, but the Natural Resource Conservation Commission conveniently has ignored their impact.

Unlike cows, prairie dogs are vital in a shrinking West Texas prairie ecosystem. Dog towns are biological oases in part because the dogs are the primary food source for raptors, such as golden and bald eagles and ferruginous hawks. Their burrows even provide nesting habitat for the rare western burrowing owl.

Nationwide, prairie dogs have been driven to the brink of extinction. Any plan to wipe out an estimated 50,000 of them merits a large dose of skepticism and at least a little biological study. But Lubbock officials claim that, science or not, the city must remove the dogs or face state action.

The state regulators are backpedaling, claiming they never intended to blame the dogs for the pollution, but they have stopped short of amending the notice of violation. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and the extermination is set to proceed.

Only now the entire state is watching. Growing opposition may ensure that no removal effort can begin without embarrassing inquiries and expensive litigation. The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission has the power to make all this go away by implementing a sensible groundwater plan and dropping this absurd scapegoating of prairie dogs.

It needs to act quickly.

Scott Royder is director of the Austin-based Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

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