Flushing out the problem

And so the saga of Lubbock and its problematic prairie dogs, which I’ve reported on before, is on the road to a conclusion, as Prairie Dog Lady Lynda Watson has begun flushing the critters out of the Oglalla Aquifer recharge zone so they can be relocated.

Since the 1930s, Lubbock has been disposing of large portions of its “gray water,” or treated sewage, by spraying it through massive irrigation systems on portions of the site. The gray water produced bumper crops of corn and other grains, but the city switched to rye grass in the late 1990s and leased the land for grazing.

That created an unnatural but attractive environment for prairie dogs, who thrive on rye grass, explained Heather Whittlaw, a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist. As a result, thousands moved onto the site. Burrowing owls, a federally protected species that occupies uninhabited prairie dog holes, moved in as well.

Over the years, however, nitrates from the “gray water” had percolated down to the Ogallala Aquifer, and the natural resource commission had cited the city for polluting that major water source in 1989.

When the agency filed an additional citation against Lubbock this summer, it mentioned prairie dog holes as possible contributors to the pollution. The city’s first response was to plan extermination of the animals.

That plan was thwarted when several groups opposed it. Animal rights activists and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission disagreed with killing the prairie dogs, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatened action if the burrowing owls were injured. A study was done and, this week, Watson contracted to begin removing the prairie dogs from the irrigated portions of the fields, leaving the animals that live on the periphery.

“I’m reclaiming as much land as I can for the city now,” said Watson.

In the process, Watson slowly fills a hole with water, places traps over escape holes and catches fugitive prairie dogs as they are flushed from their tunnels. Workers follow and pack dirt into the flooded holes to prevent prairie dogs from moving back into them.

Long live the prairie dogs in their new home.

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