Another Bite at the Dogs

The outlook for one of Texas' largest prairie dog colonies became a good deal bleaker last week when the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (formerly known as the TNRCC, or "Train-Wreck") approved Lubbock's controversial plan to exterminate the dogs, which city and state officials believe cause groundwater pollution beneath the waste-application field for the city's sewage-treatment plant. (See "Man Bites Prairie Dogs!" Aug. 30.)

The plan, which calls for trappers to relocate as many prairie dogs off the site as possible before the city poisons the thousands of remaining animals this winter, has resulted in howls of outrage from environmental and animal-rights groups state and nationwide. They argue that the city and TCEQ have no data linking prairie dogs to elevated nitrate levels 60 to 90 feet below the surface -- contamination that threatens the enormous underground freshwater source known as the Ogallala Aquifer.

The city is using the dogs as "scapegoats" for its mismanagement of wastewater, says Scott Royder, director of the Austin-based Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Texas P.E.E.R.), a charge echoed by organizations such as the Audubon Society, PETA, the Humane Society, and the Great Plains Restoration Council. Royder said critics are considering filing court motions to prevent the extermination as well as lobbying the U.S. Dept. of the Interior to classify prairie dogs as a threatened species (the animals are on a threatened species waiting list). "Black-tail prairie dogs are already in trouble," said Jill Haukos, conservation chair of the Llano Estacado Audubon Society. "Killing 40,000 of them would be devastating."

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. is also skeptical. TPWD Executive Director Robert Cooke sent two letters to TCEQ last week arguing that insufficient research exists to justify killing the dogs and urging TCEQ to conduct more studies. "We don't believe removing all prairie dogs as proposed in the city of Lubbock's action plan to TCEQ is necessary," Cooke wrote. He noted that 3,000 cows graze on the application fields, a possible cause of nitrate pollution the city, and TCEQ haven't investigated. "Why didn't they blame [the nitrate pollution] on the cows?" Royder asked rhetorically.

Dan Dennison, Lubbock's environmental compliance manager, said research shows prairie dogs' burrows damage crops that are supposed to suck nitrate from the soil, and they allow wastewater a deeper entrance below root depth. Royder and others counter that the city is misapplying information borrowed from studies of prairie dogs in other areas under different conditions.

"The focus of our [prairie dog] control is on relocation," said Dennison, adding that extermination is a last resort. But Royder said the city is doing little to save the dogs. "The city is playing up the idea that there's this huge effort to save the dogs, but there's only one person out there [trapping], and she's doing it on her own -- the city's not paying her," Royder said. "It's just part of their propaganda campaign."

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