Spared on the PrairieMarch 20th, 2003
(Lubbock, Texas) A plan to kill nearly 50,000 black-tailed prairie dogs has been scuttled thanks to a lawsuit brought by ALDF and a coalition of environmental and animal protection groups. Officials in Lubbock, Texas, were preparing to wipe out a local prairie dog colony because they claimed the animals were responsible for groundwater contamination — a claim environmental experts denied. Soon after the lawsuit was brought, the city backed away from its extermination plan, opting instead to relocate the animals.
“People think that once an animal is recognized under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it’s protected. Sadly, that’s not always true,” says Stephanie Nichols-Young, an ALDF volunteer who has been involved in efforts to protect prairie dogs across the southwest. “Black-tailed prairie dogs are listed as a candidate species under the ESA. Nine states that are part of their 11-state historic range — including Texas — have signed off on a Conservation Agreement to protect them because of this status. Yet a state agency had a hand in the city’s plan to kill the prairie dogs. I was very disappointed that government officials so blatantly tried to ignore their agreement and their duties under the ESA, especially considering that their pretext for doing so was so weak.”
The prairie dogs live in fields used by Lubbock for sewage treatment. City wastewater is sprayed on rye grass, which is supposed to absorb dangerous nitrates from the water. But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says the system isn’t efficient enough and local groundwater supplies are threatened. The commission and the city have blamed the prairie dogs for rising nitrate levels in the water because the animals create their colonies by burrowing underground. But prairie dog holes are typically no more than five feet deep, while groundwater tables lie between 50 and 90 feet underground.
Yet despite the lack of evidence linking the animals to the water contamination problem, the city created a plan to destroy the colony. That alarmed wildlife experts, many of whom believe prairie dogs are becoming so rare they should be given federal protection. Burrowing herbivores related to squirrels, prairie dogs were once common throughout the West. But over the last century, they’ve lost as much as 99 percent of their habitat. And every time another colony is poisoned or blasted, the suffering reaches out beyond the prairie dogs. Destroying a colony decimates the fragile ecosystem that has built up around its holes and tunnels, with other animals perishing as well.
So when the city’s plan became known, environmentalists and other concerned citizens raised the alarm. Soon afterward, ALDF, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Defenders of Wildlife and other groups filed suit against Lubbock and the state environmental commission, claiming that exterminating the prairie dogs would be unreasonable and arbitrary and thus in violation of proper administrative procedures. The commission quickly backed down, amending an order to the city that had blamed the nitrate problem on the prairie dogs. Lubbock officials later decided not to kill the animals. Instead, they launched a relocation effort this winter, and prairie dog advocates continue to monitor the city’s actions.
ALDF has also been involved in efforts to protect prairie dogs in Colorado, providing financial backing and legal expertise to environmentalists suing the state’s Division of Wildlife. The suit, brought by Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, argues that widespread poisoning of prairie dog colonies violates the Colorado constitution. An amendment passed by voters in 1996 made it illegal to trap or poison most wildlife species. Unfortunately, birds and rodents — including prairie dogs — were excluded from the amendment. But prairie dog colonies play host to more than 200 other species, including protected salamanders, snakes, rabbits and badgers.
This past January, a Colorado district court judge issued an opinion that castigated the Division of Wildlife for failing to ensure that protected species weren’t being killed. Yet the judge declined to mandate any corrective actions, merely suggesting that the state agency clean up its act. With ALDF support, Rocky Mountain Animal Defense is petitioning the Colorado Supreme Court for an appeal.
“Prairie dogs are being driven to the brink of extinction. That’s got to stop,” says ALDF founder and general counsel Joyce Tischler. “Lawsuits like these can slow down the killing, but the problem won’t go away until more wildlife management agencies start doing their job. They should be protecting wild animals, not destroying them.”
July 26-27, animal advocates will gather in Denver to discuss the prairie dog’s troubling future — and what to do about it. The 2003 Prairie Dog Summit will bring together educators, policymakers, attorneys, biologists and others interested in protecting this very special animal. For more information, go to www.prairiedogcoalition.org.