Monday, September 23, 2002

Prairie Dogs Become Scapegoats for Groundwater Pollution in Texas

As described in this September 23, 2002, press release from the Llano Estacado Audubon Society:

Prairie Dog Burrows' Effects on Groundwater "Infinitesimal"
Texas Tech Study Refutes Agency's Allegations in Lubbock


Lubbock, TX - Prairie dog burrows have virtually no impact on watershed pollution, according to a five-year old study highlighted today by the Llano Estacado Audubon Society. The study, written by Drs. Warren Wood, Ken Rainwater and David Thompson, all of Texas Tech University, and published in the scientific journal Ground Water, describe the transfer of water through 'macropores' or large holes, including prairie dog burrows, and their effect on the watershed. The scientists found that the amount of water reaching the groundwater through these holes was "infinitesimally small."

When contacted about the study, Dr. Warren Wood, senior author of the article, indicated that the prairie dog burrows, and indeed any macropores, become "less important" to the issue of groundwater recharge when water is applied over a surface as an even spray rather than as a flood of water.

This study refutes allegations made by the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that prairie dog burrows could threaten the groundwater on the land application site outside Lubbock. The area has been in the statewide spotlight since last June, when TCEQ (formerly the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission) notified the city of Lubbock that they must "control" the prairie dog population on the site or face clean water penalties from the state. Lubbock officials have released a plan to destroy the prairie dog town, one of the largest populations of black-tailed prairie dogs in the Southwest.

These findings add to the growing stack of evidence that TCEQ has ordered the extermination in contrast with the available science. This month, officials from TCEQ's sister agency, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division, fired off strongly-worded letters to TCEQ, noting that TCEQ officials "admitted having no evidence" that prairie dogs contribute to groundwater contamination, and argue that TCEQ should take into account the impacts of cattle grazing and non-native grasses used on the site.

"Our public officials should proceed only after they know all the facts," said Jesse Grantham, Director of Conservation for Audubon Texas, the State office of the National Audubon Society.

"Black-tailed prairie dogs are already in trouble," noted Jill Haukos, Conservation Chair of the Llano Estacado Audubon Society. "Killing 40,000 of them would be devastating. The City of Lubbock and TCEQ need to start addressing the real problems, rather than scapegoating these critters and wasting money in the process."
So what's the link between prairie dogs and birds? Burrowing Owls–a species for which there is a considerable degree of conservation concern–display a pronounced commensal relationship with prairie dogs, nesting in almost solely in abandoned (and sometimes even still-active) prairie dog burrows. So any action taken to harm prairie dogs is going to be detrimental to Burrowing Owls.

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