Git Along . . .

Why should Lubbock finally embrace its most dreaded pest? Because prairie dogs could be the city's biggest draw since Buddy Holly.

May 2003By Comments

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 date, an application for their listing was filed last year.

Prairie dogs were never completely wiped out in Lubbock, however. In fact, there are still at least fifty colonies in Lubbock County. And as zealous as the city has been in the past century about eliminating them, its citizens have made fleeting attempts to embrace their local pest. In 1938 a civic booster named K. N. Clapp founded Prairie Dog Town in Lubbock’s Mackenzie Park. Now home to some 750 dogs, the park’s creation was a dual acknowledgment of the animal’s status as a symbol of the Old West and the simple truth that Lubbock still had a whole lot of them. Later, a town mascot named Prairie Dog Pete was adopted by the chamber of commerce. But today, about the only mention of Pete or Prairie Dog Town is the photo that runs on the front page of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal every February 2, Groundhog Day, accompanied by a report on whether or not Pete saw his shadow when he came out of his hole.

Besides these lukewarm shows of affection, Lubbock has never really overcome the idea of prairie dogs as anything other than “range rats.” Among farmers and ranchers, dogs are still considered vermin as lowly and destructive as rattlesnakes or locusts because they compete with cattle for forage, devouring any and all vegetation down to the roots. Their burrow holes are also open invitations for broken legs for horses and cows, and obstructions to plows. Worst of all, like real rats, prairie dogs are hosts to the fleas that carry bubonic plague.

At the height of the extermination controversy last summer and fall, one barometer of how many locals felt about the prairie dogs was Local and Live, the morning show on KRFE-AM 580, hosted by Wade Wilkes and Holly Houston. A favorite of Mayor McDougal’s, the show was a haven for those of the lock-and-load opinion, and it received hundreds of calls defending the city’s extermination plan, an opinion shared at the time by the hosts as well as many individual landowners and local corporate entities.

But protests against extermination would never have gained traction if prairie dog opinion hadn’t begun to soften. Ryan Blakley, the owner of Walter’s World of Pets, in downtown Lubbock, likes to think that he’s partly responsible for the shift. Walter’s is where Lynda Watson wholesales many of the prairie dog pups she captures, and during the squabble, Blakley called up Local and Live and challenged Wilkes to take home a free pet dog. Wilkes accepted his challenge and quickly grew attached to the animal, which he named Maxine. Now he and Houston endorse the relocation plan and have even begun promoting the idea of a Prairie Dog Roundup, modeled after Sweetwater’s Rattlesnake Roundup.

“Once you get an animal that recognizes its name, their owners tend to be very emotional,” explained Blakley when I visited his store. He was cradling his own pet dog, Balloo. “I don’t think the city was prepared for the controversy. But when you can make an animal into a pet in a place where they’re considered vermin, that says something about their quality.”

INDEED LUBBOCK NEVER REALLY SEEMS prepared for controversy. In the past two years, in addition to the prairie dog fiasco, Lubbock made the news for the death of a SWAT team member from friendly fire, a Texas Tech professor accused of lying about missing vials of bubonic plague, and a lawsuit claiming that another Tech professor had required his students to accept evolutionary theory in order to receive a recommendation. For a city that has never settled on a great way to market itself (current slogan “Legendary Lubbock” doesn’t really do the trick), the controversies have only made matters worse. Maybe embracing the dreaded prairie dog could be the first step to reinventing its flagging image. “America’s Prairie Dog Capital” does have a certain ring to it.

After all, five miles west of Lubbock’s City Farm, a prairie dog colony still thrives in Mackenzie Park. When the sun is out and the ground is warm, the squirrellike residents amuse onlookers with their animated social interaction, standing erect on hind legs to live up to their Sentinel of the Plains nickname. The dogs are undeniably cute and become particularly friendly when baby carrots are tossed their way. For those who might crave more excitement, there’s the occasional hawk or owl swooping down to snatch a dog for breakfast. The place has all the makings of a great attraction.

Unfortunately, the town is suffering from serious neglect. The seven-and-a-half-acre site is rubble-strewn and largely devoid of vegetation. Its perimeter is littered with plastic bottles, cans, and wrappers. It’s clear that whoever is in charge of its budget gave up long ago on the idea of people stopping to gawk at rodents. But they do. It’s rarely mentioned in visitor guides, but Prairie Dog Town draws thousands of visitors every year. For the group of junior ambassadors from Lubbock’s sister city Musashino, Japan, the park is a must-stop on their annual visits. Prairie dogs are a top-selling pet in Japan, in no small part because of their similarity to the cartoon character Pokémon. A rancher in Canadian, 216 miles to the northeast, has seized on this potential. For the past couple years, he’s been putting Japanese and other tourists in a gooseneck stock trailer and driving them to the middle of a prairie dog town on his property. He leaves them there for a few hours and charges $50 each for the experience.

“Some people in [Lubbock] haven’t gotten to the point of thinking about nature as a tourist attraction,” explains Russell Graves, the author of The Prairie Dog: Sentinel of the Plains and a proponent of marketing dogs. “But for a lot of people living outside Lubbock, all they know about Lubbock is prairie dogs. I think some of the city leaders need a paradigm shift.”

For inspiration, Lubbock could do worse than study Austin’s recent history with Mexican free-tailed bats. In 1980, when that city completed a reconstruction of the Congress Avenue Bridge, a colony of bats began inhabiting the cavernous concrete supports underneath. To city managers, the small flying mammals were rabies-carrying pests, but to Merlin Tuttle, a museum curator in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the bats were an educational and tourist gold mine. Tuttle persuaded the city’s leadership to leave the bats alone, in part by moving his organization, Bat Conservation International, to Austin in 1986. Through his group’s effort to promote bat viewing, up to a thousand visitors can be found congregating at the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk on summer weekends to catch a glimpse of the bats’ nightly flights. In the span of twenty years, bats have been transformed from pests into beloved citizens. Even the town’s minor league hockey team, the Ice Bats, has cashed in on their popularity.

In Lubbock, the leadership might be coming around to this idea. Mackenzie Park is finally scheduled for major infrastructure improvements, including an irrigation system, within the next year and a half. But why stop there? If Japan is any indication, there could be vast, untapped prairie dog pet markets in the rest of Asia, South America, or Europe. The City Farm could be the cornerstone of a massive prairie dog exportation scheme, a place to generate a yearly crop of prairie dog pups. A plan like this is a long shot, of course, and it will require a visionary leader. Lubbock should look no further than Lynda Watson. Having carved a career out of prairie dog management, she might be the first local who has discovered a way to make what’s good for prairie dogs good for humans.

The last time I saw her, Watson was continuing her tireless quest to trap six hundred prairie dogs, one animal at a time, on the City Farm. It is primarily grunt work; most of the time her customized prairie dog trap remains empty. But Watson is patient. As I left her, she was down on her hands and knees, peering into another burrow. “C’mon, dude,” she whispered, “you really don’t want to be in this hole. I’ll be good if you come out right now. Make it easy on both of us.”

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