The prairie dog: Pest or pet?

Lynda Watson's right pinky finger is proof she's no run-of-the-mill animal lover. Last week it was bitten off by an ornery prairie dog she was trying to pull from its hole.

But a detached digit didn't deter her. She had it reattached and went right back to probing, barehanded up to her elbows in prairie dog holes, "racing the grim reaper," as she describes her mission to save thousands of the critters from extermination.

Prairie dogs have been the scourge of those who work the land since pioneer times – and their ravaging tunnels are a modern problem across the plains states, from the manicured lawns of Lubbock and the cemeteries of Superior, Colo., to soccer fields in Lincoln, Neb. and cattle ranches in Edgemont, S.D.

What plainsmen have long settled with a .22 and poison, is a lot more complex today– from the web of environmental concerns (endangered species and clean water) to city slicker sentiment (prairie dogs are hot pet-shop item from L.A. to Tokyo).

In Lubbock, where prairie dog tunneling has playedhavoc with the city sewage treatment farm, officials face a public-relations nightmare: How to get rid of over 40,000 prairie dogs – some estimate 1 million – with more than just the cows as witness.

The trouble began in June, when the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission found that the nitrate levels in the Ogallala Aquifer – which lies beneath the treatment farm – were dangerously close to acceptable limits. Crops grown on the farm are sprayed with the city's treated sewage water that is rich in nitrates. Thousands of prairie-dog holes, the report concluded, cause the water to flood into the aquifer before the nitrates leach out.

"We're kind of caught between a rock and hard place," says John Hindman, the manager of the 6,000-acre city farm. "But we have to do something. The prairie dog has completely taken over." The city must finalize plans to rid itself of the furry creatures by Aug. 20. And that's where Ms. Watson, who runs a prairie dog trapping business, comes in. She hopes to relocate as many of the animals as possible before extermination is an option.

Her work gives a hard- edged seriousness to environmentalism that tough-talking Texans usually consider a "touchy feel" nuisance.

Normally, when she's hired to control a population, Watson waits until the babies are born in the spring and then removes them without much fuss. But what she's doing today is unique in the prairie dog business: She's capturing full-grown adults – not particularly interested in being caught (witness: the pinky incident). It's tricky business. First, she hops from the truck, warning: "When I'm on my knees, you don't speak." She begins filling a hole with water. Then she stops, listens, and turns the water back on. All the while, her free hand is nestled deep inside the burrow, waiting for a curious or scared prairie dog to come up.

"Showtime!" she proclaims, dragging a victim from its den and tossing it into an awaiting trashcan. The whole process takes two minutes and, within a half hour, 12 soaked and confused critters sit in a cage – unaware their lives have been saved.

Her aim is to capture about 100 prairie dogs a day – and she estimates that she's already removed a couple of thousand. Most of those are being relocated to city and state parks or going to pet stores.

"I'm in total agreement that this field is overpopulated, and I can come in and thin them out. But I have to have more time," she says, wiping the sweat from her face and replacing it with mud.

Ms. Watson's time is running out because in Texas it is still legal to kill prairie dogs – and that's just what the city will have to do if it can't control the population on the city farm. Mr. Hindman, who has managed the site for 14 years, says the animals have plenty to eat and have no predators. He says generally, disease would control the population – but that didn't happen, and the prairie dog population exploded five years ago.

In many plains states the US government has insisted the black-tailed prairie dog receive protection as a threatened or endangered species, which would make it illegal to hurt or kill them. To avoid such a classification, most of the 10 states where prairie dogs live have agreed to work toward increasing habitat from 1.2 million acres to 1.7 million acres in the next 10 years.

"It will be easier in states like South Dakota where so much of the land is federally owned. But in Texas, where 97 to 98 percent of the land is privately owned, it's going to be a huge task," says Russell Graves, author of "The Prairie Dog: Sentinel of the Plains."

Here in Texas, it's still legal to kill prairie dogs – and most farmers and ranchers don't think twice about doing so on their own land. Pauline Schoppa, whose property borders the Lubbock city farm, says she learned long ago on her father's farm how to thin down a prairie-dog population – shoot the "no good vermin" with a .22.

"I don't see a dang thing cute about them," says the octogenarian, in a blue flowered housecoat and straw hat. "They're just a form of a rat, is what they are."

Mrs. Schoppa is fighting to save her front lawn. "All those people who say they love prairie dogs so much should come out here and get a dozen."

Surprisingly, people are doing just that. Pet shops across the country – and the world – are doing a bustling business in prairie dogs. In Lubbock, three of the critters lay curled in a cage at Walter's World of Pets. All yours for $99.99 for the brown variety or $699.99 for the rarer white variety.

"You can let them out of the cage ... but you have to watch them .... They chew on just about anything," says Chad Woods, whose shop sells 200 prairie dogs a year. "They can recognize their name and they're real personable, almost like a little dog."

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