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 she's targeted. Hogue sticks a hose in a hole beside one mound, then Watson places a rectangular wire cage about two feet long wrapped in burlap—"So they can't see us"—at the entrance of the same hole and gives the signal to Hogue to turn on the water. If the burrow is inhabited, the water should provoke her prey to emerge.
The first two burrows are empty. Then they move to the third mound. "Shhhh . Shhhhhh. Hear that gurgle?" Watson whispers as she puts her ear next to the hole. "I think we've got one." Soon, a very wet, very skittish dog bounds into the cage, which Watson places in the bed of her pickup. Then she lifts a blanket covering a larger cage, and the new addition joins three other prairie dogs captured earlier that morning. One is demonstrably nervous, bouncing and banging around the cage like a pinball, but Watson knows just what to do. She sticks her hand inside the cage, starts to stroke the animal's back, and soothingly coos some kind of prairie dog lullaby.
NOT EVERYONE IN LUBBOCK IS delighted by Lynda Watson's touchy-feely approach to prairie dog management. A few days after my visit to the City Farm, I talked with Mayor Marc McDougal, a real estate agent who was originally a proponent of extermination. "When you sit and talk to people in Lubbock involved in farming and ranching," said McDougal, "they'll tell you it's a rodent that doesn't mix with agricultural activities. And I'll tell you this: Prairie dogs are not endangered in Lubbock."
His opinion is understandable, if somewhat outdated. One hundred fifty years ago, Cynomys ludovicianus practically ruled northern Texas. Downtown Lubbock was the epicenter of a prairie dog megalopolis that spanned 25,000 square miles and harbored a population of 400 million dogs. But human settlement changed all that. Pioneers treated prairie dogs with the same vengeance reserved for wolves and Indians. During the Depression, the federal government employed 125,000 people as prairie dog exterminators. Their poisoning efforts were so effective that today, prairie dogs occupy less than 2 percent of their original range. Though they aren't officially protected under the Endangered Species Act to