The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Cute Rodents 1, Lubbock 0

By Dave Mann, October 18, 2002, News

State environmental regulators granted Texas' most famous prairie dog colony a temporary stay of execution last week, rescinding the city of Lubbock's highly controversial plan to kill the animals that city officials claim are the cause of groundwater pollution.

Early last week, seven environmental and animal rights groups filed a lawsuit in Travis Co. district court seeking to halt Lubbock's plan to exterminate up to 50,000 prairie dogs that live beneath the city sewage treatment plant's waste application fields. The city blames the rodents -- and not its own sewage handling -- for increased nitrate levels, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ, formerly the TNRCC) had blessed the eradication plan. But faced with mounting criticism, TCEQ backed off its finding that prairie dogs are the lone culprit, rescinded its approval, and gave Lubbock an additional 60 days to determine the pollution's certain cause and devise a solution. The TCEQ says it came to its decision before the lawsuit was filed.

The TCEQ changed its mind after regulators received letters and e-mails from numerous groups, including the Audubon Society, the Texas Dept. of Parks and Wildlife, and the U.S. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. The reversal is a huge victory, at least temporarily, for conservationists who have charged that Lubbock is using the prairie dogs as scapegoats for its oversaturation of the application field and that 3,000 cows roaming the site are also likely responsible for nitrate contamination.

"It's unfortunate we had to go as far as filing a lawsuit to get to this point," said Scott Royder, director of Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Texas PEER). But we definitely feel we're moving in the right direction now."

Prairie dog populations have dropped throughout the Southwest in recent years, and the federal government may soon designate prairie dogs a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The Lubbock colony is one of Texas' largest.

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