ON A CRISP JANUARY MORNING, Lynda Watson steps out of a weathered Winnebago parked just off Nineteenth Street on the eastern outskirts of Lubbock. A hazel-eyed, ruddy-cheeked woman who chain-smokes menthol cigarettes and wears a sweatshirt emblazoned with the letters “ PMS” (“Prairie dog Management Specialist”), Watson is Lubbock’s official prairie dog catcher. For nearly a decade, she’s made her living here and elsewhere trapping problem dogs—unwelcome pests on ranches, farms, and golf courses—relocating the adults and selling the pups to area pet stores. I’ve come here to witness her operation.
“Coffee break’s over. Go fill up,” she announces to her assistant before introducing herself with a firm handshake. Then she squints and scans the large field stretching out before us, home to an estimated 40,000 prairie dogs, 600 of which she’s been hired to flood out of their holes. “Prairie dogs may think I’m their archenemy,” she tells me with a cackle.
“Savior” would be more accurate. Last June, before a lawsuit and relentless protests forced city officials to adopt a more humane removal strategy, some of the dogs living on this 2,800-acre city-owned property were slated for mass execution. Their death sentence was decreed when a field inspector for the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission ( TNRCC) visited the Lubbock Land Application Site, known locally as the City Farm, where the city sprays partially treated wastewater with irrigation pivots and, until the program was recently discontinued, grew enough grass to pocket $300,000 in annual grazing leases. But when the inspector discovered that roughly six hundred prairie dogs had taken up residence around the pivots, he determined that their burrows could provide a shortcut for the effluent—which is high in nitrates—to seep into and contaminate the groundwater before it could be properly filtered through the soil. He promptly issued the city a notice of violation.
City managers approached the prairie dog problem just as many farmers, ranchers, and businesses in the region had for decades: They solicited bids for an extermination contract, and the TNRCC approved the strategy. The issue might have disappeared soon thereafter had the once-abundant black-tailed prairie dog not been recently recommended for protection under the Endangered Species Act. After numerous complaints about the plan from local wildlife, conservation, and pet organizations failed to change the city managers’ minds, the TNRCC (now the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) was barraged with letters, faxes, e-mails, and phone calls from, among others, the Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, and—every conservative’s favorite advocacy group—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Then a lawsuit was filed by state and local environmental groups to put a stop to the plan.
By October, drowning in a public-relations disaster, city officials finally gathered the interested parties together to hammer out an alternative solution. The talks were contentious, but there was eventually a consensus that, under the circumstances, Lynda Watson’s services were the most humane and cost-effective. The city budgeted $15,000 for her trapping services, and she’s been relocating City Farm dogs—321 at last count—ever since.
The bad blood between locals and dogs has hardly been washed clean, but on the morning I meet Watson, it’s clear that the city has turned to the right person. “I live with prairie dogs,” she tells me. “I sleep with prairie dogs. They are my life. I may lack academic credentials, but I live twelve months a year with prairie dogs. I know how prairie dogs think. All a prairie dog wants is to eat, to sleep, and to dig a hole. That’s all.”
Then she goes to work, climbing onto a four-wheeler while her aide, Daryl Hogue, follows her in a city-owned water truck. After patrolling for a few hundred yards, Watson stops the procession, scans the distance with binoculars, and calls for Hogue to move the water truck close to three mounds