Spared on the Prairie

Posted on March 20, 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.