Animal rights activists are protesting the city of Lubbock's attempts to forcibly remove prairie dogs from a large site where wastewater is treated.
The controversy began in June, when the then-Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission cited the city of Lubbock for polluting the site with treated sewage the city sprays on crops.
The TNRCC, now titled the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, reported high concentrations of nitrates in monitoring wells in the area, indicating the sewage has permeated the soil and threatens the Ogallala Aquifer below.
That report -- in a town where "Prairie Dog Pete" was once touted as Lubbock's ambassador to the world, where "Peppy the Prairie Dog" was previously used by the TNRCC itself to promote recycling -- at once made the little animal a villain and a cause célèbre.
The agency's finding was nothing new. The land application site has been in violation before. The city has used the site since the 1930s, spraying as much as 8 million gallons of effluent daily on 3,000 of the 6,000 acres.
In their June report, however, TNRCC investigators added a new wrinkle: They blamed prairie dogs. The report mentioned the increasing numbers of the little animals that have moved into and flourished in the abundant rye grass that is fertilized with the effluent. That report postulated that water could be traveling down prairie dog holes, beneath the grass roots and closer to the aquifer.
Prairie dogs are not a protected species and the city immediately began considering gassing or poisoning the little rodents. Any immediate plans for mass extermination ended, however, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pointed out that migratory burrowing owls, a nationally protected species, use the prairie dog holes in the summer and fall and might be killed as well.
That prompted the city to move its extermination plans to winter, when the owls have departed.