Scott Royder: Lubbock plan to eliminate prairie
dogs full of holes
Dallas Morning News, 09/07/2002
By SCOTT ROYDER
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
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
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
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than outdated sewage management practices, are at fault?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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